What is the connection between delays on Amtrak's "Empire Builder" train between Chicago and Seattle and a $680 million equity and debt investment by KKR?
The answer: sand.
This is not any old sand we're talking about. It's not the sort of sand to send children quietly to sleep at night. It's the sort of sand that's now both raising hackles and money: frac sand.
Why is it so important? Because it's critical for fracking. And there's a fracking boom in the U.S.
Frac sand is what, in the industry, is called a "proppant." Essentially, proppants "prop" or keep open the cracks and pores in the rock after it has been fractured ("fracked") so that the oil, gas and natural gas liquids can be pumped out.
Shale Oil Extraction
While raw sand is not the only proppant—e.g., ceramic beads of sintered bauxite, kaolin and alumina, and resin-coated sand and ceramics are also used as proppants—it's the most widely used.
U.S. silica estimates that around 90 percent of proppant volume is based on sand and, in March this year, Hi-Crush Partners, a premium monocrystalline sand producer and supplier, based on research from the Freedonia Group, indicated: "Raw sand [is] projected to increase as a percentage of proppant market, averaging at least 80 percent by volume." (With the explosion in fracking and the use of frac sand in just this last year, it's difficult to know how, with the higher consumption figures, the proportions of the different proppants may have changed. But these are useful as indications.)