Enter Sandman: The Importance of Tangential Plays in the Energy Sector

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Our domestic energy boom has drastically affected employment in several states, set off a maelstrom of controversy -- and ignited the sand industry? That's right, sand is king! Without sand, hydraulic fracturing isn't effective, and without hydraulic fracturing, well, our energy picture would be very different. Hydraulic-fracturing sand is the perfect example of paying attention to tangential ties to a booming industry.

Sand stats
Last year, 28.7 million tons of sand were used in hydraulic fracturing. The sand is mixed with a variety of chemicals and millions of gallons of water and then injected into wells at incredible pressures. The role of the sand is to hold open cracks in the shale so that gas may flow into and up the well to the surface.

The current market price for one ton of certain types of sand is about $120. Sales of this precious silica eclipsed the $1 billion mark in 2010, and some analysts expect sand demand to grow 30% this year.

For the past two years, demand has been such that high-quality sand has been hard to come by, prompting some companies to buy their own sand plants, enabling them to control supply and avoid the high costs that come hand in hand with high demand.

Buying up sand plants
Talk about foresight. In 2008, EOG Resources (NYSE: EOG) decided to take matters into its own hands. The company purchased a sand plant in North Texas, convinced that demand for sand was about to skyrocket, and the price wouldn't be far behind. It was right.

The company saves an estimated $1 million-$2 million per well in the Eagle Ford shale, and part of that is because it owns its own sand.

Pioneer Natural Resources (NYSE: PXD) is saving money as well. The company-owned sand mine in Texas saves Pioneer an estimated $65 million-$70 million a year, paying $80 a ton instead of $120.

Pure play
For those looking for a more direct way to invest in the sand boom, consider one of Fool analyst Jason Moser's recent Rising Star picks: CARBO Ceramics (NYSE: CRR) . CARBO produces ceramic proppants that function just like the sand used in hydraulic fracturing, but with a 20% increase in production and an estimated 20% increase in recovery.

There is some risk in CARBO, specifically regarding class-action lawsuits, and many investors may feel most comfortable adding the company to My Watchlist for now, continuing to monitor that story as it develops.

Foolish takeaway
Even if there are few direct ways to cash in on a tangential play, it is important to recognize when companies do it. EOG's foresight cut costs and is indicative of smart management and good long-term decision-making.

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