Heavy truck traffic in Towanda PA as a result of Marcellus Shale natural gas fra

Heavy truck traffic in Towanda PA as a result of Marcellus Shale natural gas fracking.
Image from Protecting Our Waters, via Creative Commons image search.

The Latest Hidden Cost of Fracking

Frequent truck traffic is destroying rural roads near fracking wells – leaving small communities with repair bills bigger than the tax revenue the oil and gas brings in.

“[The road] looked like it’d been hit by a bomb,” said Jim Webster, Commissioner of Parker County, Texas.

“[The road] looked like it’d been hit by a bomb,” said Jim Webster, Commissioner of Parker County, Texas.

In his small Texas town, large potholes, crumbling shoulders and a thick coat of mud mark the fracking truck route. And in case you wanted to put eyes on the trucks themselves, you wouldn’t have long to wait. Twenty-four hour a day traffic is the hallmark of fracking operations, which can employ over 1,000 trucks at a time, making more than 150,000 trips over the lifetime of a well.

With attention this week on the revelation that fracking can actually cause mid-sized earthquakes, the destruction of rural transportation infrastructure quietly remains one of fracking’s greatest costs.

Roads with a twenty-year lifespan need replacing after only five years of fracking traffic.

Any energy project is going to require at least a truck or two. A wind turbine installation for example, takes a few trucks to transport the turbine blades and other pieces. What sets fracking operations apart in this regard is that the trucks never stop. 40-tonne water trucks rumble down rural roads for the entire lifespan of the project, putting wear and tear on roads that were never built to withstand such a high volume of heavy traffic. Roads with a twenty-year lifespan need replacing after only five years of fracking traffic.

The state of Pennsylvania is home to the massive Marcellus Shale deposit. Natural gas trapped in the fissures within the shale rock is a prime target for extraction through fracking. But for all the revenue generated, the state had to funnel $265-million back into road repairs in an attempt to mitigate some of the infrastructural damage. In Texas, the joy of $3.6-billion in oil and gas taxes was tempered by a $4-billion bill to repair the roads.

The fracking industry acknowledges that it cannot turn a profit if it is forced to cover associated infrastructure repairs.

These enormous costs are dumped unceremoniously on local governments and residents. Many don’t understand what they’re signing up for by inviting fracking companies into their community until it’s too late. While it’s difficult to prove that fracking companies deliberately target poor rural communities, they have certainly been known to lean on municipalities for concessions. Local governments are often asked by fracking companies to ignore load restrictions which are in place to maintain the structural integrity of the road while it is water-logged and soft during the spring.

Most tellingly of all, the fracking industry acknowledges that it cannot turn a profit if it is forced to cover associated infrastructure repairs.

RELATED: Fracking’s Return on Investment is a Myth

Earthquakes, or perhaps Russia’s covert anti-fracking campaign, will continue to draw headlines, but activists looking to defeat the fracking dragon would do well to look elsewhere for its vulnerable underbelly. The industry has shown itself to be adept at deflecting criticism, either by waving economic incentives under the nose of low-resource populations or – in the case of potential groundwater contamination – simply refusing to provide the information necessary to make accurate environmental assessments. Transportation, however, is a weakness the fracking industry seems to realize it can’t easily hide.

The precautionary principle ought to be sufficient reason to put a hold on fracking operations: there are too many unknown environment impacts. Still, fracking continues to prosper. The destruction of transportation infrastructure presents a compelling environmental and economic argument against fracking wells. They won’t cause any earthquakes, but those endless trucks will tear up the ground all the same.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.