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Clay under Stark, Dunn counties a boon: Study reveals massive load of fracking material

This material, pictured next to a penny to show its size, is a proppant used in the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process that has allowed oil drillers to retrieve oil stuck deep within the Bakken. A large mass of clay material that's good for use as a proppant has been located in Stark and Dunn counties.

Could a certain type of clay prominent in western North Dakota make the hydraulic fracturing process easier for energy companies while simultaneously providing even more of an economic boost to the Oil Patch?

The foremost geologist in the state thinks both scenarios could become reality.

"We've estimated that there are 1.7 billion tons of economically mineable kaolin in western North Dakota," said state geologist Edward Murphy. "This is something that could potentially be a boon for energy companies and for the state of North Dakota."

After some extensive study by the North Dakota Geological Survey and North Dakota State University, two things are clear: the state has plenty of clay and most of it is buried in Stark County and Dunn County.

Commonly referred to as kaolin, these rock-like clay formations are full of kaolinite, a stable mineral that tends to be high in aluminum oxide content.

Common ingredients used in the fracking process are proppants -- substances used to prop open cracks in the shale formation to allow oil to seep out -- and can come in the form of sand-based mixtures and ceramic beads.

Much of the ceramic proppant materials currently used in the fracking process in the Bakken come from as far away as China, but that could soon change, Murphy said.

"On average, a Bakken well uses 3 (million) to 5 million pounds of proppant," Murphy said. "In 2012, companies will drill and complete around 2,400 oil wells in North Dakota and use roughly 5 million tons of proppant. A big cost of drilling a Bakken or Three Forks well is tied directly to proppants."

The GS has mapped two major deposits of this special type of clay: the Bear Den portion of the Golden Valley Formation, mostly in Dunn County, and the Rhame Bed of the Slope Formation, which is located primarily in the western half of Stark County.

A total of 232 rock samples were submitted to the Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering at NDSU with a final report due in late 2012 or early next year, according to the GS website.

When contacted Thursday, representatives from energy contracting giants Halliburton and Baker Hughes -- both of which are active in the Bakken -- said they couldn't enter into specifics about the potential for the mining of North Dakota kaolin.

"Our global supply chain acquires many commodities around the world on a daily basis," said Baker Hughes spokesperson Pam Easton. "Based on this activity level, and for competitive reasons, we are not able to discuss just one ingredient or source for a particular commodity."

Murphy said the decision on the use of a sand and chemical mixture or the use ceramic beads as proppant in the fracking process comes down to whichever a particular company prefers. A move to proppant which would be mined near the Bakken, however, could significantly cut down on shipping costs and efforts to bring sand in, often from places like Wisconsin.

"We've kind of done phase I of the process already," Murphy said. "It's now going to be a matter of companies and the state looking into the potential of mining these minerals. We could see that process move along in the next couple of years."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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