The city of Fort McMurray, Alberta, is famous for two things, and the second has everything to do with the first. First, it is the home of Canada’s major oil production hub, the Athabasca tar sands. Second, it is the home of the most deadly road in the entire province.
For at least the last eight years, Highway 63 has been aptly named the “Highway of Death.” And for good reason. As production has rapidly expanded in Fort McMurray, so have the amount of cars transporting workers, and trucks carrying equipment on the long, icy, narrow road. This has caused more crashes, and by extension, deaths. And even as residents try to get the road expanded, its treacherousness has become part of life, an unintended side effect of being a boomtown.
Now, that same unintended side effect is happening in the United States, but in places where fracking is — now literally — making a killing.
According to an Associated Press data analysis released Monday, traffic fatalities have more than quadrupled since 2004 in some drilling states, even as roads are getting safer. This, the report said, is not merely due to an increase in population, but an increase of both general traffic and heavy equipment drivers in the regions, most of them present because of the fracking boom.
This can be seen specifically in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale region, where the Associated Press said deaths from car accidents have increased by 350 percent over the last decade, despite a population increase of only 42 percent in that time. Gas from the Bakken Shale formation, which is estimated to hold approximately 4.3 billion barrels of oil, is largely produced through the fracking process.
Additionally, the report cited 21 Texas drilling counties where traffic deaths per 100,000 people are up an average of 18 percent, compared to the rest of Texas where they are down by 20 percent. In West Virginia’s most heavily drilled counties, traffic fatalities rose 42 percent in 2013, compared to an 8 percent decline in the rest of the state.
“We are just so swamped,” Sheriff Dwayne Villanueva of Karnes County, Texas, told the AP. “I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.”
Though any boom in fossil fuel production will inevitably bring a flood of workers and equipment into an area, the report notes that the hydraulic fracturing process winds up brings an especially large amount of equipment with it. Fracking is uniquely characterized by its process, injecting high-pressure streams of water, chemicals, and sand into underground rock formations, “fracturing” the rock to release oil and gas. To deliver all that water, chemical, and sand, anywhere from 2,300 to 4,000 truck trips are required per well, the report said.
Increasing speed of production is also a factor, the report said, with communities unable to improve roads and other traffic infrastructure fast enough to keep up with the amount of drilling activity, more of which always comes with more cars and trucks.
Accidents from fracking-related trucks have increased so much, in fact, that attorneys are now setting up practices specifically to represent people who have been involved in them. This is increasingly found in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale, where more than 7,000 oil and gas wells have popped up in the area since 2008 — much of them fracking wells.
“The revenue generated by the Eagle Ford Shale comes at a price,” the website of Christian legal firm Simmons and Fletcher P.C. reads. “If you’ve been injured in an accident with an industrial oil & gas 18 wheeler truck in south Texas, you need the help of an experienced legal team.”
There’s even a whole firm called “Frackcident Injury Law” located in Pennsylvania — another place experiencing above-average vehicle fatalities as a side effect of its fracking boom.
“The combination of too many trucks, sleep-deprived truckers, ramshackle vehicles, and dangerous roads is a nightmare for anyone who cares about roadway safety,” the website reads. “Do the economic benefits of fracking justify those risks for motorists?”