The Potentials and Problems of Expanding Use of Shale Gas in the Continental U. S

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3. Social Costs

Much of the national discussion about fracking has focused on the obvious environmental risks and economic costs, as mentioned above, while the social costs of fracking have been largely ignored. However, the shale gas boom and fracking generate tangible social impacts that undermine the quality of life in societies and create intense pressures on the social fabric, particularly of the rural ones. The Associated Press summarized the problem:

In a modern-day echo of the raucous Old West, small towns enjoying a boom in oil and gas drilling are seeing a sharp increase in drunken driving, bar fights and other hell-raising, blamed largely on an influx of young men who find themselves with lots of money in their pockets and nothing to do after they get off work [89].

The energy boom and fracking have transformed some rural communities into “modern versions of Wild West mining towns,” which include ongoing examples in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Texas, and North Dakota. The influx of new workers creates a quick population bulge in small towns and rural communities that have a limited capacity to meet the growing needs and challenges [90]. Energy boomtowns often face disruption of the social fabric, a decrease in both availability and quality of housing facilities along with rent raises, traffic congestions and higher number of traffic accidents, insufficiency of government and municipal services, an increase in public service costs, rising levels of crime, and law enforcement difficulties [92].

In this section, we will focus on the social costs of the energy boom and fracking, particularly in small communities. However, shale energy is a new phenomenon, and as such, the level of direct knowledge on community risks from this phenomenon is low. But, there is an array of community research that has focused on previous forms of energy extraction and their impacts on society such as coal and oil. Due to scarcity and availability of proven and solid data specifically related to social impacts of shale gas boom and fracking, we will also sometimes utilize from those studies thanks to their long background in the USA.

Disruption of the Social Fabric

Rural and remote societies have drawn strength from their social cohesion, but energy booms can strain and disrupt the fabric of those societies. Community members generally report changes in social norms and behaviors: a perceived loss of social cohesion and a reduction in density of acquaintanceship, sense of identity, and solidarity in areas where ongoing natural gas development has taken place; this is mostly due to an enormous influx of newcomers. For example, Garfield County, Colorado noticed that the natural gas industry boom of 2003-2009 coincided with significant changes to the community’s demographics, social structures, and community wellness [92].

A number of studies related to boomtowns found that energy exploration changed the way of life in small towns significantly. These changes include strains in communicating with newcomers and neighbors of long standing, the making of social class alignments previously considered unimportant, a shift in the established power structure from the ranchers to the new mining industrialists, the need to live with constant and increased uncertainties and fear of crime for which planning is virtually impossible, a keen interest on the part of some merchants and businessmen in immediate monetary gain, the need to accommodate to the invasion and requirements of newcomers who subscribe to foreign life-styles and value systems, alteration and disappearance of social structures as shared histories and cultural ties, and finally, loss of a sense of community [93][94][95][96].

Deone Lawlar, a 57-year-old native of Watford City, which is located in the middle of the fracking play, said, At first, we were excited about the prospect of bringing in new people and money … but it slammed us so hard, in such a little time that a lot of locals now are kind of resentful... and now we want our town back.” [97]

“Gillette Syndrome,” named after a well-known coal town in Wyoming, became the epithet for representing an unflattering image of what happens to small towns when a large energy development takes place nearby. In its general definition, Gillette Syndrome refers to social disruption that can occur in a community due to rapid population growth particularly in boomtowns. Such disruptions usually include increased crime, degraded mental health, weakened social and community bonds, abnormally high costs of living, and other social problems [98].

Decreases in Availability and Quality of Housing Stock

The flood of new energy workers can exceed the available housing stock in rural areas, which further results in increases of local rents and housing prices. A 2011 study conducted on the effect of the development of the Marcellus Shale on housing facilities in Pennsylvania stated that the influx of newcomers compared to limited housing stock has led to at least 50 percent increase in rental prices. Many communities experienced a doubling or even tripling of rents in some of the counties. For instance, take a house in Lycoming County. Similar houses rented at $900 per month before fracking but rented at $2,500 per month after fracking became intense. As another example, a small older house that rented for $600 in 2008 rented for $2,000 three years later in the same county [99].

In addition, due to a shortage of rental units, high rental prices, and quality of rentals, workers may be forced to live in overcrowded and squalid conditions that further stress the community. For example, In Gillette/Wyoming, coal miners and their families, just like gas drillers in Pennsylvania, lived in “squatter colonies” of mobile homes that frequently lacked sufficient water and sanitation infrastructure. Their situations were further troubled with problems such as diseases, environmental pollution, and stress in the community [98][100].

Moreover, the effect of an increase in rental prices has been greatest on low and fixed income individuals who can either no longer pay for their homes or pay almost half of their income for rent. As a considerable result, local social services, including the need to develop homeless shelters and food support, may be strained [101].

As another side effect of housing shortage due to the gas boom, more children are split from parents and thus create higher demand for foster care services. Some low-income families unable to secure adequate housing are separated, and children are put into the foster care system. For example, in Greene County/Pennsylvania, the number of children in foster care due to “inadequate housing” has been increased by more than double after fracking boom [102].

Increases in Road Congestion, Number of Traffic Accidents and Maintenance Cost

Energy booms bring dramatically increased road congestion and heavy-truck traffic because of the need to deliver water, equipment, supplies and workers to drilling sites. Total truck movements during the construction and development phases of a well are estimated at between 7,000 and 11,000 for a single ten-well pad, and on average 250 truck trips are made daily to an individual site [103]. According to a regional transportation study, between 2007 and 2010 the amount of truck traffic on three major northern Pennsylvania highways increased by 125 percent and overall average daily truck traffic rose 22 percent in the 5 county regions [104].

Increased heavy vehicle traffic also has contributed to an increase in traffic accidents in drilling regions. Food and Water Watch found that shale gas drilling was associated with higher levels of traffic accidents, particularly with more heavy-truck crashes. According to their research, heavy-truck crashes rose 7.2 percent in heavily fracked rural Pennsylvania counties but fell 12.4 in un-fracked rural counties after fracking began in 2005 [105].1

Although the road congestion and heavy truck traffic movements are temporary for the drilling duration, they would nonetheless adversely affect both local and national roads. For example, the 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 [106].

A 2014 study on the damage of fracking on local transportation infrastructure in the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania notes that local roads are generally designed to support passenger vehicles, not heavy trucks cause exponentially greater roadway damage. The study also found that the estimated road-reconstruction costs associated with a single horizontal well range from $13,000 to $23,000 [107]. The New York State of Transportation estimated that the total road maintenance costs to mitigate impacts from truck traffic to 40,000 proposed wells across New York State would total as much as $378 million annually [108].

The state of Texas has approved $40 million in funding for road repairs in the Barnett Shale region, while Pennsylvania estimated in 2010 that $265 million would be needed to repair damaged roads in the Marcellus Shale region [109]. Greene County has had similar experiences with damaged roads and collapsed bridges. Greene County’s highway maintenance costs rose from $11.7 million in 2000 to a high of $16.4 million in 2011 [102]. According to the above mentioned regional transportation study, state and local governments in northern Pennsylvania will have to repave many roads every 7 to 8 years instead of every 15 years [104]. These appalling numbers indicate the great extent of infrastructural damage caused by fracking on regional communities.

Increases in the Level of Social Disorder and Crime Rates

The rapid population growth resulting from energy development leads to higher levels of social disorder and an increase in the number of crimes and arrests for civil disturbances, especially for substance abuse and alcohol-related crimes. For example, in Rock Springs/WY, the number of calls to the local police department increased from 8,000 to 36,000 amidst a doubling population and complaints during the energy development process [98]. As another example, in Cumberland Township/Greene County/PA, the overall call volume to police, which included calls for drunken driving arrests (DUIs), theft, disturbances, disorderly conduct, sexual assault, and motor vehicle accidents, nearly doubled between 2008 and 2011: from 1,549 calls to 3,086 calls [102]. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the population increase in one oil-producing county was 5 percent from 2010 to 2011 as contrasted with an approximately 40 percent increase in domestic violence calls to law enforcement during the same time period [110].

A study by state intelligence agencies found that crime rose by 32 percent since 2005 in communities at the center of the oil and gas boom [111]. Also the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported increases in crime followed the Pennsylvania gas drilling boom. They noted that in Bradford County, DUIs were up 60 percent, and DUI arrests were up 50 percent in Towanda. Overall, criminal sentencing was up 35 percent in 2010 [112]. In Sublette County/WI, a rural gas boomtown that began its development in the early ‘90s displays a significant correlation between population growth associated with energy development and crime rate over a nine year period too. The population increase was 21%, while the crime rate, measured by the number of arrests in the county, rose by 270% [113].

Also above-mentioned research by the Food and Water Watch also found that fracking is associated with more social disorder arrests. Researchers state that disorderly conduct arrests increased by 17.1 percent in heavily fracked rural counties, compared to 12.7 percent in un-fracked rural counties in Pennsylvania. According to a recent nation-wide study (2014) by the University of Alaska, there is strong evidence that, as a result of the ongoing shale-energy boom, shale-rich counties experienced faster growth in rates of both property and violent crimes including rape, assault, murder, robbery, burglary, larceny and grand theft auto. These results are particularly robust for rates of assault, and less so for other types of crimes [114]. Also it is asserted that gas booms brought about through fracking contribute to high rates of dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The Department of Justice plans to spend up to half a million dollars to further study this issue [115].

Impacts on Local Governments

Although the local “boomtown” governments enjoy large increases in revenues thanks to royalties from natural gas development, they also suffer due to the high amount of expenditures for the mitigation of impacts from the development. Population growth and industrial activities outstrip a local government’s ability to effectively provide even basic provisions such as infrastructure and maintenance (e.g. roads, sewer, and water systems) and law enforcement and administration demands [116].

The largest new cost, especially for county governments, is often for road maintenance and repair because heavy truck trips occur over a short period of time and in most cases on rural roads not originally designed to handle such traffic. For example, road and bridge expenditures in Van Buren County/Arkansas roughly doubled from $1.5 million to $3 million per year from 2005 to 2010 [117]. The related cost for road infrastructure is already mentioned above so we do not need to repeat again.

Another major potential cost, primarily for municipal governments, is increased demand for sewer and water infrastructure. Rapid population growth in parts of shale boom-enjoying states such as North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming has led cities to extend sewer and water lines or to expand water and wastewater treatment plants. These projects cost tens of millions of dollars, even for small municipalities. Other costs for local governments relate to staff and equipment needs associated with a growing population. These include increased staffing requirements for law enforcement and emergency services to deal with increased traffic, accidents, or criminal activity, as well as increased staffing for administrative services such as the county clerk’s office.

Finally, as mentioned above, energy booms lead to quickly rising rents, forcing governments to increase housing facilities for both locals and newcomers. In the Bakken Region (North Dakota), several local governments have purchased real estate and construct housing to provide affordable living options for employees.

As a general example to all above mentioned costs, Midland/Texas approved $51 million in infrastructure projects in 2012, which is a significant amount of its total annual revenues of $171 million. The city has also seen major new staff costs, as roughly 35 new city employees have been added, largely in the police and fire departments. Furthermore, large salary increases have been necessary to retain staff. The city has also built a new fire station ($4 million) and a municipal courthouse ($9 million), and expanded its office space ($10 million) [116][118][119].

All these findings suggest that shale gas boom and fracking impose real social costs on society, including social fabric disruption and loosening social cohesion, a decrease in availability of housing facilities, an increase in crime rates and law enforcement difficulties, and insufficiency of public services. The cumulative social effects of shale gas development in rural communities can ultimately be viewed as degradation in quality of life for the area’s population.

In addition, in some areas it is very clear that our knowledge has not progressed far enough to capture every dimension of the social impacts incurred by shale gas booms and fracking. In this regard, communities and states must take potential social costs into account and perform a thorough social impact assessment when they consider approving controversial new natural gas fracking. To supplement those efforts, more academic and/or government leading research should be conducted to clarify the many different types of social costs involved in the fracking industry.

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