The specialized sand arrives at Olympia in 1.5-ton “super sacks,” is poured into enclosed rail cars and then travels 900 miles to the northwest corner of North Dakota, where it plays a role in an economic oil boom reminiscent of Alaska in the 1970s.
Called ceramic proppants and manufactured in China, the grains of sand have a hint of alumina and are coated with ceramics. They’re used in an oil-exploration process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” that literally props up the weight of the earth so that oil, deep underground, can be released.
For some, fracking is a controversial process, prone to contaminate groundwater, while others say it takes place so deeply underground that there is no threat to groundwater.
Some say the process is closely regulated, and means jobs and growth in North Dakota as well as jobs in the South Sound, where the sand is handled at the Port of Olympia.
The port has secured shipments of ceramic proppants for the next two years with Rainbow Ceramics, a Houston-based company with operations in China. The new cargo represents $1.5 million in annual revenue for the port.
So far, three ships from China have made deliveries this year, and another three are expected before the end of the year. The last ship to arrive delivered 6,500 metric tons of ceramic proppants this month.
Once the rail cars are loaded with proppants, they roll out of Olympia and connect with BNSF railway lines in DuPont, said Mike Klass, marketing and resource planning manager for Tacoma Rail.
From there, the shipments head south to Portland and east along the Columbia River; north to Everett and east through Wenatchee; or east through Yakima. They all wind up in Spokane before traveling east through the Rockies to North Dakota.
Once there, the proppants are put to work in finding oil in the Bakken shale, deep underground in the northwest corner of the state, as well as Eastern Montana and parts of Saskatchewan.
Williston, N.D., the center of much of the oil exploration activity, has grown to 30,000 people, nearly tripling its population since 2009, said Shawn Wenko, the town’s assistant director for economic development. Williston is the fastest growing community under 50,000 people in the country, according to recent census data, he said.
Oil exploration in North Dakota began in the early 1950s. The state underwent boom and bust periods in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Bakken shale was long thought to have oil, but technology had not advanced enough to reach it until the development of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the early 2000s.
“Then things really took off,” Wenko said.
The Williston area is now home to 400 oil and gas service companies, including some of the largest in the world, such as Halliburton, he said. North Dakota is thought to have the capacity for 70,000 wells. So far, 7,000 wells have been drilled with more wells coming at a rate of 1,200 to 1,300 a year, Wenko said.
Wenko said there’s a misconception that drilling is out of control in the area.
“North Dakota regulates it very well,” he said, although he added the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues to look at the fracturing process, and action by the federal agency could slow things.
The proppants are safer for dock workers to handle and don’t result in as much dust as typical sand does, said Jim Knight, who is in charge of business development at the Port of Olympia.
A comment on the community website OlyBlog questions whether the port should be involved in importing the proppants.
“Do we want our port to be a participant in other communities’ environmental problems?” the commenter wrote. An attempt to reach the person who left the comment was unsuccessful.
Knight said the new cargo helps the port meet its economic development mission, including employing about 40 dockworkers who regularly work at the port’s marine terminal.