By Noi Mahoney – Freight Waves– Long before sunrise, Molly Sizer starts her day in West Texas as a professional frac sand hauler.
She gets dressed, drives her Peterbilt truck to one of the dozens of frac mines around the Permian Basin, is loaded with 50,000 pounds of sand, drives 100 miles or more through crowded bumpy roads and finally delivers the sand to frac well sites somewhere in the vicinity of Odessa or Midland, Texas.
“It may seem repetitive, but to make oilfield money you have stay on the grind,” Sizer said. “Driving one of those trucks is a very exciting feeling, it makes you feel free, it makes you feel empowered.”
The oil and gas industry is booming in the Permian Basin, an 86,000-square-mile area spanning southern New Mexico and West Texas. It is one of the largest oil and gas producing regions in the world, accounting for 35 percent of United States crude oil and 17 percent of its natural gas production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Ryan Carbrey of Houston-based energy research firm Rystad Energy said that the Permian Basin has become a juggernaut of onshore drilling in the U.S. partly because the fracking process makes it profitable to produce oil and gas.
“The Permian Basin is on track to produce 4.6 million barrels of oil per day this year,” Carbrey said. “It is on track to produce 7.3 million barrels of oil per day by 2024.”
Carbrey said the Eagle Ford Shale in south Texas is another region producing oil and natural gas, producing around 1.3 million barrels per day of oil.
Frac sand is the key ingredient in the hydraulic fracturing process, in which oil and gas drillers pump frac sand and other materials into wells to break up shale rock, through which natural gas and petroleum will flow more easily.
“Through the use of horizontal drilling technology, companies now have the ability to reach each level – multiple zone targets. New technology lets you drill a well, in four, five, six or even seven zones. We are not predicting the Permian Basin to slow down for another five years,” Carbrey said.
The amount of sand used in large wells can be up to 50 million pounds, while water use can be around 25 million gallons per well. Once the oil and gas is extracted from a well, trucks or pipelines are used to deliver it to ports mainly along the Gulf of Mexico.
Sizer became a frac sand hauler around four years ago, when she answered an ad on Craigslist seeking drivers in the Permian Basin. Sizer had some previous experience driving trucks, but not moving frac sand.
“I really didn’t know much about the oilfields, I was hired by an owner-operator – I was the driver, and then he had his truck leased to a company called Red Zone that would dispatch me to the fracking sites,” Sizer said.
Sizer said she very quickly fell in love with hauling frac sand and working near the oilfields.
“The thing that was the most exciting was that when you go onto these locations and you are working with these other drivers, and everybody is pumped up because there is a lot of money to make – the enthusiasm and high level of emotion is contagious,” said Sizer, who has a Youtube channel called “Female Professional Driver.”
In Texas, the oil and gas industry supports around 17 percent of jobs in the state, either directly or indirectly, according to a new study from the Waco-based Perryman Group.
The total annual economic benefits of the Texas energy sector and related industries include a gross product of $198.8 billion and more than 1.9 million jobs, the Perryman study said.
For frac sand haulers in Texas like Sizer – sometimes called “sand pushers” – there is good money to be made, ranging from $60,000 to $100,000, according to drivers in the industry.
But the days are long and the work is hard. Frac sand haulers’ schedules can be up to six days a week, day and night shifts, with 12-hour days. Drivers also have to have two years of commercial driver’s license (CDL) experience, Sizer said.
Frac sand hauling can also be dangerous. Sizer said she recently had a meeting with other drivers where they were told there had been 26 fatalities and 80 crashes of commercial vehicles since July 1.
There were around 100 deadly crashes involving commercial vehicles in 2018, according to the Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance, a local nonprofit that has been legislating for infrastructure improvements in the area.
“We’re not always driving on highways. One of the hardest parts of the job is you are usually driving on country roads or county roads, sometimes dirt roads and you have to watch when you are turning so you’re trailer doesn’t go into a ditch,” Sizer said. “At times at night it really is so dark, you can’t see very well out in the Permian.”
Drilling and fracking a single well can involve almost 1,000 trucks, hauling drilling equipment, sand and water. As a result, driving around the Permian Basin can be treacherous because of congested traffic.
“On some of these little two-lane county roads, they’ve become super highways, there are so many semi-trucks,” Sizer said. “Then you have little pick-up trucks trying to get around the semi-trucks, weaving in and out, it gets dangerous.”
Sizer said another factor could be that there are two types of frac hauling trucks – pneumatic trucks and sandbox trucks.
Sizer drives a pneumatic tractor-trailer. Sand is delivered by the pneumatic or belly-dump trucks, starting at a transload facility or mine and ending at the well site. A newer technology being employed by freight companies are sandbox containers that can be placed on a flatbed trailer and driven to well sites.
“Pneumatic trucks take a little more training, but sandbox trucks, all you need is a CDL,” Sizer said. “So we are getting a lot of these over-the-road drivers coming and driving the sandboxes – when they get out here to the oil patches, they are not used to these road conditions.”
Sizer also said she has faced some discrimination and gender bias at times. However, she also had truckers who were willing to help her, like a friend named Abraham, who she described as a mentor. Out of thousands of truck drivers in the Permian Basin, Sizer estimates there are around 25 female drivers.
She says despite the risks, frac sand hauling is a great industry for those prepared to work hard at it.
“It’s going to change your life, it’s going to empower you, it is going to make you financially free because it offers such good pay,” Sizer said.
Noi Mahoney is the Cross-Border Freight Market Reporter for FreightWaves.com.