Here They Come Again! The Impacts of Oil and Gas Truck Traffic
Part of the FracTracker Truck Counts Project
By Mary Ellen Cassidy, Community Outreach Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
I was recently invited by a community member to visit his home. It sits in a valley that is surrounded by drilling pads, as well as compressors and processing stations. While walking down the road that passes directly in front of his home, several caravans of gas trucks roared past and continued far into the evening. Our discussion about the unexpected barrage of this new invasion of intense truck traffic was frequently interrupted by the noise of the diesel engines passing nearby. Along with the noise, truck headlights pierced through the windows of the home, and dust flew up from the nearby road onto his garden.
There are many stories like this about homes and families impacted by the increased truck traffic associated with fracking-related activities. FracTracker is currently working with some of these communities to document the intensity of gas and oil trucks travelling their roads. In response to these concerns we have a launched a pilot Truck Counts project to provide support, resources, and networking opportunities to communities struggling with high volume gas truck traffic.
Volunteers in PA, WV, OH and WI have already started to participate in the project, with some interesting results, photos, observations, and suggestions.
To-date, truck counts have varied significantly, as to be expected. Some of the sites where we chose to count passing trucks were very close to drilling activity, and some were more remote. While developing the counting protocol, we often included large equipment and tanker trucks, as well as gas company personnel vehicles (as indicated by white pickup trucks and company logos on the side). While the data vary, the spikes in truck counts do tell the story of a bigger and broader issue – the influx of heavy equipment during certain stages of drilling can be a significant burden on the local community. In total, we counted 676 trucks over 13 sites The average number of trucks that passed by per hour was 44, with a high of 116 an hour, and a low of 5.
About the Project
FracTracker Truck Counts partners with communities to: help identify issues of concern related to high volume gas truck traffic; collect data, photos, videos and narratives related to gas truck traffic; and analyze and share results through shared database and mapping options.
What motivates volunteers to join us in our Truck Counts program? Community concerns include dust, diesel exhaust, spills, accidents, along with other health and safety issues, as well as the cost and inconvenience of deteriorating road conditions resulting from the increased weights and numbers of vehicles. So, what do we already know about the extent of the damages caused by heavy truck traffic?
Several studies have found that shale gas development is strongly linked to increased traffic accidents and that the increases cannot be attributed only to more trucks and people on the road.
Unlike gas truck traffic issues from past oil and gas booms, this recent shale gas boom impacts traffic and public safety in many different ways. The hydraulic fracturing process requires 2,300 to 4,000 truck trips per well, where older drilling techniques needed one-third to one-half as many trips. Another difference is the speed of development that often far outpaces the capacity of communities to build better roads, bridges, install more traffic signals or hire extra traffic officers. Some experts explain increased truck traffic related accidents by pointing to regulatory loopholes such as federal rules that govern how long truckers can stay on the road being less stringent for drivers in the oil and gas industry. Others note that out of state drivers in charge of large heavy duty loads are not always accustomed to the regional weather patterns or the winding, narrow and hilly country roads that they travel.
An Associated Press analysis of traffic deaths in six drilling states shows that in some counties, fatalities have more than quadrupled since 2004 when most other American roads have become much safer in that period (even with growing populations). Marvin Odum, who runs Royal Dutch Shell’s exploration operations in the Americas, said that deadly crashes are “recognized as one of the key risk areas of the business”. Along with the community, gas truck drivers themselves are at risk. According to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, vehicle crashes are the single biggest cause of fatalities to oil and gas workers. The AP study finds that:
- In North Dakota drilling counties, the population has soared 43% over the last decade, while traffic fatalities increased 350%. Roads in those counties were nearly twice as deadly per mile driven than the rest of the state
- From 2009-2013-
- Traffic fatalities in West Virginia’s most heavily drilled counties…rose 42%. Traffic deaths in the rest of the state declined 8%.
- In 21 Texas counties where drilling has recently expanded, deaths/100,000 people are up an average of 18 % while for the rest of Texas, they are down by 20%.
- Traffic fatalities in Pennsylvania drilling counties rose 4%, while in the rest of the state they fell 19 %.
- New Mexico’s traffic fatalities fell 29%, except in drilling counties, where they only fell 5%.
A separate analysis by Environment America using data from the Upper Great Plans Institute finds that – “While the expanding oil industry in North Dakota has produced many benefits, the expansion has also resulted in an increase in traffic, especially heavy truck traffic. This traffic has contributed to a number of crashes, some of which have resulted in serious injuries and fatalities.” In the Bakken Shale oil region of North Dakota, the number of highway crashes increased by 68% between 2006 and 2010, with the share of crashes involving heavy trucks also increasing over that period.”1
Public health concerns do not end with traffic accidents and fatalities. An additional cost of heavy gas truck traffic is the strain it places on emergency service personnel. A 2011 survey by State Impact Pennsylvania in eight counties found that:
Emergency services in heavily drilled counties face a troubling paradox: Even though their population has fallen in recent years, 911 call activity has spiked — by as high as 46 percent, in one case.” Along with the demands placed on emergency responders from the number of increased calls, it also takes extra time to locate the accidents since many calls are coming from transient drivers who “don’t know which road or township they are in.
In Bradford County, a heavily drilled area, increased traffic has delayed the response times of emergency vehicles. According to an article in The Daily Review, firefighters and emergency response teams are delayed due to the increased number of accidents, gas trucks breaking down, and gas trucks running out of fuel (some companies only allow refueling once a night).
Road Deterioration and Regional Costs
An additional cost often passed on to the impacted communities is infrastructure maintenance. In an article from Business Week, Lynne Irwin, director of Cornell University’s local roads program in Ithaca, New York, states, “Measures to ensure that roads are repaired don’t capture the full cost of damage, potentially leaving taxpayers with the bill.”
This Food and Water Watch Report calculated the financial burden imposed on rural counties by traffic accidents alone, estimating that if the heavy truck accident rate in fracked counties had matched those untouched by the boom, $28 million would have been saved.2
Garrett County is currently struggling with anticipating potential gas traffic and road costs. The Garrett County Shale Gas Advisory Committee uses recent studies from RESI ‘s New York and Pennsylvania data to project gas truck traffic for 6 wells/pad at 22,848 trips/pad and 91,392 total truck trips the first year with increasing numbers for the next 10 years. Like many counties, Garrett County also faces the issue that weights and road use are covered by State, not County code. There is a possibility, however, that the County could determine best “routes” for the trucks. (This is a prime example of the need and benefit for truck counts.)
Although truck companies and contractors pay permit fees, often they are either insufficient to cover costs or are not accessible to impacted counties. The Texas Tribune reports, “The Senate unanimously passed a joint resolution which would ask voters to approve spending $5.7 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, including $2.9 billion for transportation debt. But little, if any, of that money is likely to go toward repairing roads in areas hit hardest by the drilling boom.”
Commenting on the argument that gas companies already pay their fair share for road damages they cause, George Neal posts calculations on the Damascus Citizens for Sustainability website that lead him to conclude that, although “the average truck pays around 27 times the fuel taxes an average car pays… according to the Texas Department of Transportation, they do 8,000 times the damage per mile driven and drive 8 times as far each year.”
The funds needed to fill the gap between the costs of road repairs and the amount actually paid by the oil and gas companies must come from somewhere. According to a draft report from the New York Department of Transportation looking at potential Marcellus Shale development costs, “The annual costs to undertake these transportation projects are estimated to range from $90 to $156 million for State roads and from $121-$222 million for local roads. There is no mechanism in place allowing State and local governments to absorb these additional transportation costs without major impacts to other programs and other municipalities in the State.”
Poor Air Quality
Along with public safety and infrastructure costs, increased truck traffic associated with unconventional oil and gas extraction is found to be a major contributor to public health costs due to elevated ozone and particulate matter levels from increased emissions of heavy truck traffic and the refining and processing activities required.
In addition to ozone and particulate matter in the air, chemicals used for extraction and development also pose a serious risk. A recent study in the journal of Human and Ecological Health Assessment found that 37% of the chemicals used in drilling operations are volatile and could become airborne. Of those chemicals, more than 89% can cause damage to the eyes, skin, sensory, organs, respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, or the liver, and 81% can cause harm to the brain and nervous system. Because these chemicals can vaporize, they can enter the body not only through inhalation, but also absorption through the skin.
The Union of Concerned Scientists note that air pollution from traffic may be worsened in North Dakota by the use of unpaved roads that incorporate gravel containing a fibrous mineral called erionite, which has properties similar to asbestos. Trucks driving over such gravel roads can release harmful dust plumes into the air, which could present health risks for workers and area residents
To address and solve these problems associated with heavy truck traffic, information is needed to assess both qualitatively and quantitatively the scope of the increased truck traffic and its impacts on communities. Collection and analysis of data, as well as community input, are needed to both understand the scope of the problem and to inform effective solutions.
Joining FracTracker’s Truck Counts
In response to community concerns about the impacts of increased truck traffic in their community, FracTracker has developed the Truck Count project to document the intensity of oil and gas traffic in your region, map heavy traffic locations, and offer networking opportunities for impacted communities.
Participation in FracTracker’s Truck Counts can provide grassroots organizations with a valuable opportunity to collect local data, engage volunteers, and educate stakeholders and the public. The data, pictures and narratives collected can be used to support concerned citizens’ efforts to reroute traffic from schools, playgrounds and other sensitive areas; to inform decision makers, public health researchers, and transportation agencies; to serve as a potential launching point for more detailed, targeted studies on public health and safety along with economic development analyses; to compare costs and benefits of oil and gas energy sources to the cost and benefits of energy conservation, efficiency and renewable energy.
Also, by sharing your community’s counts and stories on FracTracker.org, you serve other communities by increasing the awareness of the impacts of oil and gas truck traffic nationwide.
FracTracker’s Truck Counts provides the following resources to conduct the counts:
- information and education on gas and oil truck identification,
- data sheets for easy counting, and
- tips for selecting safe and accessible counting locations in your community.
We look forward to working with you and supporting your community. If you are interested in working on this important crowdsourcing project with us, please contact:
Mary Ellen Cassidy
Community Outreach Coordinator
Endnotes and References
- In addition, a 2013 study from Resources for the Future found that shale gas development is linked to traffic accidents in Pennsylvania with a significant increase in the number of total accidents and accidents involving a heavy truck in counties with a relatively large degree of shale gas development as compared to counties with less (or no) development.
The 2013 Food and Water Watch Report finds similar correlations. Shale gas drilling was associated with higher incidents of traffic accidents in Pennsylvania. This trend was strongest in counties with the highest density of fracking wells. The decrease in the average annual number of total vehicle crashes was 39% larger in unfracked rural counties than in heavily fracked counties. (analysis based on data from US Census Bureau, PA DEP and PennDOT).
In a recent Karnes County, Texas analysis “Traffic accidents and fatalities have skyrocketed in the shale boom areas….with an increases of 1,000% in commercial motor vehicle accidents from 2008-2011.
According to a 2013 Texas Public Threat Safety Report, “In the three Eagle Ford Shale counties where drilling is most active, the number of crashes involving commercial vehicles rose 470 percent between 2009 and 2011. In the 17 counties that make up the Permian Basin, fatal car crashes involving commercial vehicles have nearly tripled from 14 in 2010 to 41 in 2012.
As a result of heavily using of publicly available infrastructure and services, fracking imposes both immediate and long-term costs on taxpayers. An Environment Texas study reveals that, “Trucks required to deliver water to a single fracking well cause as much damage to roads as 3.5 million car journeys, putting massive stress on roadways and bridges not constructed to handle such volumes of heavy traffic. Pennsylvania estimates that repairing roads affected by Marcellus Shale drilling would cost $265 million”.
- Researchers from the RAND Corporation and Carnegie Mellon University looked at the design life and reconstruction cost of roadways in the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania. Their findings in Estimating the Consumptive Use Costs of Shale Natural Gas Extraction on Pennsylvania Roadways, note that local roads are generally designed to support passenger vehicles, not heavy trucks, and that “the useful life of a roadway is directly related to the frequency and weight of truck traffic using the roadway.” The study’s findings include:
- “The estimated road-reconstruction costs associated with a single horizontal well range from $13,000 to $23,000. However, Pennsylvania often negotiates with drilling companies to rebuild smaller roads that are visibly damaged, so the researchers’ conservative estimate of uncompensated roadway damage is $5,000 and $10,000 per well.
- While the per-well figure of $5,000-$10,000 appears small, the increasingly large number of wells being drilled means that substantial costs fall on the state: “Because there were more than 1,700 horizontal wells drilled [in Pennsylvania] in 2011, the statewide range of consumptive road costs for that year was between $8.5 and $39 million,” costs paid by state transportation authorities, and thus taxpayers.”
- The feature photo at the top of the page was taken by Savanna Lenker, 2014.
The data assumes that traffic is coming from one direction when it is often not leaving the assumption that it is possible these numbers are higher possibly doubled or tripled at certain locations.