The Associated Press has analyzed traffic deaths and other data in six US states where unconventional oil and gas development is occurring. While most American roads have become safer as the population has grown, states where hydraulic fracturing is underway have seen spikes in traffic fatalities – in some areas, roadway deaths have more than quadrupled since 2004.
The AP found:
- In North Dakota drilling counties, the population has soared 43 percent over the last decade, while traffic fatalities increased 350 percent. Roads in those counties were nearly twice as deadly per mile driven than the rest of the state.
- In 21 Texas counties where drilling has recently expanded, deaths per 100,000 people are up an average of 18 percent. In the rest of Texas, they are down by 20 percent.
- Traffic fatalities in West Virginia's most heavily drilled counties…rose 42 percent in 2013. Traffic deaths in the rest of the state declined 8 percent.
- Traffic fatalities in Pennsylvania drilling counties rose 4 percent over that time frame, while in the rest of the state they fell 19 percent.
- New Mexico's traffic fatalities fell 29 percent, except in drilling counties, where they only fell 5 percent.
AP’s findings are no surprise. A 2013 study from Resources for the Future (RFF) found that shale gas development is linked to traffic accidents in Pennsylvania. RFF found:
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.
…with one additional well drilled in a county, the number of accidents involving a fatality increases by 0.6 percent (on average there are 1.8 fatalities per county per month).
Some of the causes of all this carnage are obvious. Hydraulic fracturing requires thousands of heavy truck trips - as many as 4,000, according to AP - for every well drilled, to haul equipment, water, sand, gravel, chemicals, and wastewater. Water is by far responsible for the most truck trips. All that traffic and the sheer pace of development overwhelm the capacity of rural roads and bridges, traffic control, and public safety infrastructure – leading, unfortunately, to more roadway deaths.
But as RFF pointed out, it’s not just because there are more trucks and more people on the road:
A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that 27% of fatalities among oil and gas extraction workers in the United States from 2003 to 2006 were from highway motor vehicle crashes…(t)here are reasons why increased shale gas truck traffic could increase the probability of an accident; there are oil field exemptions from highway safety rules created in the 1960s that allow truckers in the oil and gas industry to work longer hours than drivers in other industries. Furthermore, it has been shown that an increase in the number of light—trucks in the vehicle fleet increases annual traffic fatalities.
Recycling more drilling water is of very limited value in preventing roadway fatalities. Building more pipelines for fresh water delivery may be of significantly greater value here. And eliminating the exemptions enjoyed by the oil and gas industry would also help. But they all miss the bigger question.
Why haul water and wastewater at all – especially when the economic and human costs are so high - if there are alternatives?
There is a business case for squeezing the water out of unconventional oil and gas development. Clearly, there is also a case of simple humanity.