Measuring the Social Cost of Fracking

Using data from public records, Food & Water Watch finds that in rural Pennsylvania’s most heavily “fracked” counties, there were increases in heavy-truck accidents, disorderly conduct and sexually transmitted diseases. These "social costs" need to be part of the policy discussion around fracking, they say.

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The production of cheap energy through hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is creating an economic boom for some rural areas and parts of the energy industry. Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit group that promotes environmental food and water safety, says these economic benefits are offset by heavy social costs that need to be figured into public policies that regulate fracking and other energy development.

Food & Water Watch looked at publicly available data to attempt to quantify these costs for one state – Pennsylvania. Below is an excerpt of their report, “The Social Costs of Fracking.” The entire report, along with references and methodology, is available here.

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Food & Water Watch found that shale gas drilling was associated with higher levels of traffic accidents, arrests for civil disturbances and sexually transmitted infections in rural Pennsylvania counties. Moreover, this trend was strongest in counties with the highest density of fracking wells. These findings suggest that drilling and fracking can impose real social costs on rural communities (traffic accidents, crime and public health problems) and that the most heavily fracked counties bear the greatest social costs.

The study examined a decade of annual, county-level data for traffic accidents (heavy-truck accidents), civic disturbances (disorderly conduct arrests) and public health cases (the total number of gonorrhea and chlamydia cases) over two periods: before fracking (2000 to 2005) and after the commercialization of fracking in Pennsylvania (2005 to 2010). The study looked at Pennsylvania’s 35 rural counties and compared the 12 counties where no fracking occurred to the 23 counties with fracking. Additionally, the analysis examined the top-third most-fracked counties; these eight most heavily fracked counties had at least one well for every 15 square miles. (See Figure 2.)

For each social indicator, the analysis compared the prevalence (for example, the average annual number of heavy truck crashes) and the average year-to-year change (e.g., the average annual percent increase or decrease in the number of heavy-truck crashes) from the before-fracking period to the after-fracking period. These measurements demonstrate trends for each social indicator before and after fracking began in Pennsylvania.

Source: Food & Water Watch, U.S. Census and Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection.
The map shows the number of fracking wells drilled by county in rural Pennsylvania.


Truck Crashes

Energy booms bring dramatically increased road congestion and heavy-truck traffic because of the need to deliver equipment, supplies and workers to drilling sites. Nationally, the number of automobile accidents has been declining steadily since 2005, and in Pennsylvania, the number of all crashes and the number of heavy-truck crashes have generally been declining since 2000. Food & Water Watch found that for rural Pennsylvania counties, fracking is associated with a curtailment of this trend — a slowing of the decrease in heavy-truck crashes — while rural Pennsylvania counties with the highest density of fracking actually saw an increase in heavy truck crashes in the post-fracking period. The decrease in the

Source: Food & Water Watch analysis of Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation Data.
average annual number of total vehicle crashes was 39 percent larger in unfracked rural counties than in heavily fracked counties. Food & Water Watch found that the rural Pennsylvania counties with the highest density of fracking had the largest increase in heavy-truck crashes after fracking began in 2005. After fracking began, the average annual change in truck accidents trended upward in the counties with fracking wells (after trending down before fracking started) and continued to decline in unfracked counties after fracking began. …

Heavy-truck crashes increased 7 percent in heavily fracked rural Pennsylvania counties but declined 12 percent in unfracked rural counties once fracking began: The average annual number of heavy-truck crashes increased 7.2 percent in heavily fracked counties (with at least one well for every 15 square miles), rising from an average of 284 crashes a year in the pre-fracking period (2000 to 2005) to an average of 304 crashes in the post-fracking period (2005 to 2010). In contrast, heavy-truck crashes fell 12.4 percent in unfracked rural counties and fell 1.3 percent in all fracked counties (including the heavily fracked counties). (See Figure 3.)

Post-fracking, heavy-truck crashes grew by an average of 9 percent a year in heavily fracked rural Pennsylvania counties but fell by an average of 3 percent a year in unfracked rural counties: Between 2000 and 2005, the number of heavy-truck crashes (crashes per million vehicle miles) fell by an average of 0.4 percent a year in rural counties that would later host fracking and declined by 1.6 percent a year in what would later be heavily fracked rural counties. Fracking appears to have contributed to a reversal of that trend.

During the post-fracking period, heavy-truck crashes increased by an average of 1.2 percent annually in all fracked counties and by 8.8 percent in heavily fracked counties. In unfracked counties, heavy-truck crashes continued to decline with an average decrease of 3.1 percent a year. (See Figure 4.)

Social Disorder Crimes

The large influx of transient fracking workers can lead to higher levels of social disorder, especially substance abuse and alcohol-related crimes. …  

Source: Food & Water Watch analysis of the Pennsylvania State Police Reporting Database, Uniform Crime Reporting System.
Disorderly conduct arrests rose a third more steeply in heavily fracked rural counties after fracking began than in unfracked rural counties: The average annual number of disorderly conduct arrests in the most heavily fracked counties rose 17.1 percent, from 1,336 prior to commercial fracking (2000 to 2005) to an average of 1,564 per year after fracking. (See Figure 5.) This increase is one-third higher than the 12.7 percent increase in the average annual number of disorderly conduct arrests in unfracked rural counties.

The average annual increase in disorderly conduct arrests was three times higher in heavily fracked rural Pennsylvania counties after fracking began than in unfracked rural counties: From 2005 to 2010, disorderly conduct arrests grew by an average of 6.9 percent a year in the most heavily fracked counties, reversing an average annual 3.7 percent decline seen between 2000 and 2005. This increase was more than three times faster than the 2.1 percent average annual increase in unfracked rural counties from 2005 to 2010 (up from a 0.4 percent annual increase from 2000 to 2005). (See Figure 6.) In all fracked rural counties, disorderly conduct arrests declined by an average of 1.7 percent annually from 2000 to 2005, but it declined by only 0.9 percent a year from 2005 to 2010.

Sexually Transmitted Infections 

Energy booms can contribute to public health problems as transient workers overwhelm the capacity of rural hospitals and health systems are inundated with new, often-uninsured patients and public health problems, including an increase in the incidence of occupational injuries, traffic accidents, mental illness, substance abuse and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). …

Source: Food & Water Watch analysis of Pennsylvania Dept. of Health statistics and research data.
The increase in the average annual number of cases of sexually transmitted infections was greater in heavily fracked rural counties than in unfracked rural counties: The average annual number of gonorrhea and chlamydia cases increased by nearly a third (32.4 percent) in the most heavily fracked rural Pennsylvania counties once fracking began — 62 percent more than the 20.1 percent increase in rural unfracked counties. (See Figure 7.)

During the post-fracking period, the number of cases of sexually transmitted infections increased twice as fast in heavily fracked counties as in unfracked counties: After fracking began, the number of chlamydia and gonorrhea cases increased by an average of 8.0 percent a year in the most heavily fracked rural counties, more than twice the 3.8 percent a year average increase in unfracked rural counties. (See Figure 8.) All fracked rural counties had an average annual increase of 4.6 percent.

The average annual growth in STI cases was much greater for all rural counties during the pre-fracking period (2000 to 2005), but unfracked counties saw the STI growth rate plunge by more than two-thirds during the second half of the decade (2005 to 2010) — dropping from 12.4 percent a year to 3.8 percent a year. Heavily fracked counties, however, saw only a slight decrease in the STI growth rate — from 9.8 percent pre-fracking to 8.0 percent post-fracking. …

Conclusions and Recommendations

The expansion of drilling and fracking is associated with significant quality-of-life and public health problems in rural Pennsylvania communities. These findings are consistent with a wealth of academic literature demonstrating the negative social consequences of rapidly developing energy boomtowns. It also supports extensive anecdotal evidence from community leaders and media reports that the rise in fracking has also delivered tangible harms to rural life. …

Proponents tout fracking as a panacea for energy independence and job creation, but the social costs identified in this study have real economic impacts on rural communities as well. … Communities and states must take these real costs into account when they consider approving controversial new oil and gas fracking.

Food & Water Watch’s policy recommendations include investing in more independent research that isn’t funded by the energy industry, reducing energy demand, promoting renewable energy and investing in “clean-energy” technology. The group also advocates a national ban on fracking.

 

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