Climate

Investigation Links Texas Fracking Boom To Huge Increase In Fatal Car Crashes

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/KEITH SRAKOCIC

In this photo made on Saturday, March 1, 2014, a truck drives through an intersection in Clarksburg, W. Va. An analysis of traffic fatalities in the busiest new oil and gas-producing counties in the U.S. shows a sharp rise in deaths that experts say is related to the drilling boom.

The number of people who have died in Texas car crashes involving commercial vehicles has increased by more than 50 percent since the fracking boom started there in 2008, according to a joint investigation from the Houston Chronicle and Houston Public Media released last month.

Fatal car accidents in Texas rose from 301 incidents in 2009 to 454 incidents in 2013, according to Texas Department of Transportation data compiled for the investigations. The number of fatalities “took off as the boom in fracking operations got under way,” the report says, with most of the crashes taking place on roads that wind through the gas-rich Eagle Ford Shale in south Texas, and the Permian Basin in the western part of the state.

The data don’t show whether any of the accidents involved commercial trucks associated with the fracking operations, so it’s impossible to say with confidence that the state’s oil and gas boom directly caused the increase in fatality. But the records do show that most of the accidents took place in the areas that are being heavily drilled, “where busy roads regularly fill with tractor-trailers, tanker trucks and commercial vans hauling water, workers and supplies to oil and natural gas well sites, as well in urban counties that serve as burgeoning hubs for the oil field industry.”

Screenshot 2014-10-16 at 11.46.00 AM

CREDIT: Houston Public Media/Ken Ellis

The chance of more car accidents and fatalities has long been a notable side effect of fracking, a popular yet controversial technique to stimulate underground natural gas wells. According to an Associated Press data analysis released this past May, traffic fatalities have more than quadrupled since 2004 in some drilling states, even as roads are getting safer. This, the AP 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 fracking.

In response, the joint investigation notes that many Texas transportation companies have offered “extensive driver training programs” and implemented strong safety standards for drivers. But the investigation also shows that some companies, under stress from deadlines and customer demands, “scrimp or ignore safety” at the behest of those standards.

Though any boom in resource development inevitably brings a flood of workers and equipment into any area, the fracking process 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, according to the AP report.

Increasing speed of production is also a factor. With the fracking boom happening so fast, communities sometimes become unable to improve roads and other traffic infrastructure quickly enough to keep up with the amount of drilling activity, which always comes with added vehicle traffic using the roads.

Accidents from fracking-related trucks have increased so much, in fact, that attorneys have set up practices specifically to represent people who have been involved in them.