Roads buckling under the weight of the shale gas industry

By Bill Holloway

As hydraulic fracturing technology has made it possible to extract natural gas from reserves across the U.S., many states and small towns are facing the challenge of how to prevent their roads from being destroyed by the industry’s trucks. Though each individual well requires hundreds of truck trips carrying sand, water, hydraulic fracturing fluid, and equipment, many rural roads near shale gas formations were not designed for the heavier use to which they are now being subjected. With each 80,000-pound truck generating hundreds or thousands of times the roadway damage as a standard passenger vehicle, these roads are deteriorating at an accelerated pace, resulting in more costly and frequent maintenance. In many states, roadway maintenance costs related to oil and gas industry trucks may reach into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

When fracking first began, some rural roads were being rendered nearly impassable due to the damage inflicted by drilling industry trucks. On some “pie crust” roads in Pennsylvania, where the asphalt may only be two inches thick, trucks were creating ruts that were up to two feet deep, damaging passenger vehicles and causing drivers to take longer alternate routes. Many states now require that the industry pay to repair or reconstruct roads that they damage. Pennsylvania and other states now require that drilling companies agree to maintain the low-volume roads used by their trucks. Chesapeake Energy, the country’s second largest natural gas driller, paid $63 million in maintenance costs related to their trucks’ use of West Virginia roads in 2011 and expects to pay roughly 50 percent more in 2012.

The Ohio legislature is considering new energy regulation that would require various taxes, fees, and Road Use Maintenance Agreements to offset the additional costs of maintaining services and roads in areas with fracking operations.

Some companies, however, are less willing to pay for damage that their trucks inflict. One particular concern is that companies delay maintenance while their project is ongoing, wanting to avoid repairing roads that will continue to be damaged. Companies would rather wait to repair the roads until after they are done using them — with local residents bearing the costs of the damage in the meantime.

While the gas drilling industry has brought a number of jobs and a good deal of economic development to many parts of the U.S., accurately assessing the cost of the roadway damage due to the industry’s truck traffic remains a challenge.

Read more about how communities and states are dealing with the drilling industry in Business Week.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI. He can be reached at holloway@ssti.us.