Taxpayers Pay as Fracking Trucks Overwhelm Rural Cow Paths

Fracking Truck Damage
The surge in hydraulic fracturing has resulted in a significant increase in traffic on roads too flimsy to handle the trucks that serve well sites. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When natural-gas drillers arrived in Wetzel County, West Virginia, resident Bill Hughes, a retired electrician, saw the benefits of producing a fuel that burns cleaner than coal. Then oversize trucks hauling drilling supplies began tearing up local roads, creating hazardous conditions.

“The bastards are just in too much of a hurry,” Hughes said, recalling an incident when a dump truck tried to pass him on one of the county’s narrow, two-lane roads that have suffered from the pounding of the trucks.

A surge in hydraulic fracturing to get gas and oil trapped in rock means drillers need to haul hundreds of truckloads of sand, water and equipment for a single well. Drilling that added jobs and tax revenue for many states also has increased traffic on roads too flimsy to handle the 80,000-pound (36,300 kilogram) trucks that serve well sites.

The resulting road damage will cost tens of millions of dollars to fix and is catching officials from Pennsylvania to Texas off guard. Measures to ensure that roads are repaired don’t capture the full cost of damage, potentially leaving taxpayers with the bill, according to Lynne Irwin, director of Cornell University’s local roads program in Ithaca, New York.

“It’s the Wild West,” Irwin said in an interview. “Everybody is making up their own rules.”

Texas Pays $40 Million

The Texas Department of Transportation has formed a task force to study the impact of energy development on roads, according to department spokesman Mark Cross. Last month, the state’s Transportation Commission approved $40 million to repair roads near the Barnett Shale in North Texas and the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas.

The Wyoming Legislature has commissioned a study of roads in the southeastern part of the state near the Niobrara Shale formation in anticipation of drilling for oil. One goal is to determine how much money must be allocated for road maintenance and how local governments should be compensated, according to Khaled Ksaibati, professor of civil engineering at the University of Wyoming where the study is being conducted.

The result will be a “baseline on the current condition of those local roads and how much traffic they can take before we get to failure,” Ksaibati said in an interview.

New York Costs

While New York state has yet to allow fracking for gas, it is weighing the potential impacts on roads. A draft study last year from the state’s Department of Transportation found that “hundreds of miles of roads and scores of bridges” would need to be reconstructed to handle gas industry trucks at a cost of $211 million to $378 million.

“The potential transportation impacts are ominous,” the study found.

In Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where advances in technology have opened the Marcellus Shale to drillers, officials are catching up to road-use issues, Irwin said. Operators unfamiliar with local conditions such as when roads freeze and thaw are worsening conditions, according to Tim Ziegler, field operations specialist at the Larson Transportation Institute at Pennsylvania State University.

“Basically, it is a collision of 21st century industry and 19th century roads, or improved cow paths,” Ziegler said in an e-mail.

‘Pie-Crust’ Roads

Drillers in Pennsylvania must agree to maintain low-volume or “pie-crust” roads, streets that may have only two inches of asphalt over dirt, before the state will allow heavy truck traffic, according to Scott Christie, deputy secretary for highway administration at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Producers are tapping into Pennsylvania’s portion of the Marcellus Shale, a formation stretching from New York to Tennessee that may hold enough gas to supply the U.S. for three years.

“When they first arrived I would say we were slightly behind,” Christie said in an interview. “In some cases the ruts were two-feet deep. In some cases the roads were almost impassable.”

Even newer roads are vulnerable. A portion of U.S. Highway 2 near Williston, North Dakota, completed in 2004, is already being reconstructed, Jamie Olson, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said in an e-mail. Traffic across the state has increased 10 percent in the past year, and 25 percent near the Bakken Shale formation, where oil is being produced.

Exceed Projections

“We are reconstructing a portion of this roadway because the accumulated traffic loading has already exceeded the 20-year projection,” Olson said.

Local officials in charge of rural roads don’t have the means to calculate how much damage the gas industry has done and will typically overcharge by requiring replacement roads, Irwin said. Officials who oversee highways and interstates have yet to begin assessing the impacts from the gas industry, which shares the road with other heavy haulers.

“It could go either way,” Irwin said. “There’s methods available to figure out what would be the correct amount. I don’t see a good model yet to point to.”

Gas drillers provide jobs, tax income, and other indirect benefits, according to a December report from energy researcher IHS Global Insight. Shale gas production supported more than 600,000 jobs in 2010, a number that includes people who work at well sites as well as “indirect jobs” in associated industries such as lawyers, cement makers and real-estate agents.

‘Still Safe’

“We want to make sure we work with them to keep those pluses going and also make sure the roadways are still safe,” Cross said.

West Virginia also requires drillers to sign maintenance agreements and post a bond to cover the cost of repairs, said Gary Clayton, regional maintenance engineer with the state Department of Transportation. Drillers must have road contractors on standby to make repairs as needed.

“They don’t all come as rapidly as we would like them to,” Clayton said in an interview. “In most cases outside of a few, we’ve been able to maintain the roads in near the original condition.”

The state has yet to take action against a driller for failing to comply with its road maintenance obligations, Clayton said. West Virginia has issued more than 275 road permits. About 3,000 miles (4,827 kilometers) of state roads are being used in gas production.

Wet Gas

Chesapeake Energy Corp. has seven drilling rigs in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, according to Scott Rotruck, vice president of corporate development and state government relations for the Oklahoma City-based producer. Wells in the region produce wet gas that includes liquids such as ethylene, used to manufacture plastics, and propane, that can fetch twice as much as dry gas.

West Virginia roads were not built to handle heavy trucks needed for shale development, Rotruck said in remarks prepared for an April 11 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation in Fairmont, West Virginia. Chesapeake, the biggest natural-gas driller in the U.S. after Exxon Mobil Corp., has spent $61 million on roads in West Virginia in 2011 and plans to spend $93 million this year, Rotruck said.

“We reinforce, rebuild, and repair roads, as the situation dictates, to keep them safe and passable,” Rotruck said. “Chesapeake realizes and takes very seriously, our responsibility for safety.”

Wetzel County

While Hughes said Chesapeake “has been pretty good about road maintenance,” some companies delay repairs as they add new wells to a drilling site. Drilling began in Wetzel County, about 90 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, in 2007.

As a result, drivers end up losing mufflers or, in some cases, taking longer routes to avoid damaged roads, Hughes said. The idea that taxpayers won’t bear the cost of road damage is “ridiculous,” he said.

“Maintenance as they go, not when they’re done, that’s the issue,” Hughes said. “They don’t want to do it in between because they know they’re going to damage them again.”

West Virginia was unprepared for the scale of drilling-truck damage, according to John Gruzinskas, sheriff of Marshall County, north of Wetzel County. Drivers hired by drilling companies were “disrespectful” of local residents, Gruzinskas, said at the April 11 hearing. His office lacks the authority or manpower to police the industry,

“Our roads are destroyed from these overloaded vehicles, and our state is a willing participant in this destruction,” Gruzinskas said in remarks prepared for the hearing. “The drivers are not familiar with our winding narrow roads. Many of our residents are run off the road by the large trucks.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE