Fracking: What does it mean for local people?

What is it like living near a shale gas site? (with a webinar for planners and health professionals)

In shale gas exploitation, most people are more worried about what goes on at the surface than deep underground. If you’ve never seen a drilling rig or a frack truck, it’s hard to imagine what it might be like to live up close to a fracking operation, but many people believe that shale gas fracking on a large scale counts as industrialization of the landscape.

This article looks at the ground-level effects that people near fracking sites might experience. An upcoming webinar will examine the key issues planners and health professionals need to know about.

The well pad is very busy during hydraulic fracturing. This is a fracking site at Fox Creek, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Mike Stephenson)To understand what shale gas fracking looks like at the surface, it is instructive to follow it through from start to finish.

If a decision is made to drill an exploratory well — and all the permits are in place — a flat area called the well pad is prepared by clearing and levellng. To protect the ground underneath from any chemical spills, an impermeable liner is laid and storage tanks and pipes are installed. Trucks have to visit the site very regularly, so roads or tracks have to be cleared or new roads made. A local river or borehole may be used to supply water, and waste fluid will have to be stored, in which case water pipes, a lined waste pit or storage tanks will have to be constructed.

Webinar: Shale gas, public health and planning

Fracking webinarProf. Mike Stephenson will give a free webinar Tuesday titled Shale gas, public health and planning: five things to think about for shale gas in your area. Dr. Stephenson, Chief Scientist at the British Geological Survey, has advised the UK government on shale gas and carbon capture and storage issues. In this webinar, he will consider five aspects of fracking:

  • Noise and visual impact
  • Truck traffic
  • Air quality
  • Groundwater contamination
  • Induced earthquake.

The webinar will be live online on Tuesday, Sep 22, at 11 am EDT / 4 GMT, and will be available on demand after that. Register here.

If fracking is successful, gas might be produced before the well head can be connected up to a national or local gas pipeline. This gas is difficult to store and so is often burnt in a flare. Other materials that have to be stored or disposed of apart from waste fluid and gas include drill cuttings (the bits of rock from the hole) and waste drilling mud (the lubricant used to keep the drill cool). These wastes are the same as those from conventional oil and gas wells. Waste fluid is sometimes disposed of in deep wells, especially in parts of the United States. Waste water and flow back fluid can also be transported to treatment plants set up to clean water from lots of industrial sources.

If the rate of flow of gas is high enough, the well will go into production, so it is connected to a national or local pipeline. This is the longest part of the life of the well that could stretch to many decades. Before gas can go into a national pipeline it has to conform to a standard and some machinery may still be needed at the well head, for example to remove water vapor from the gas. But production is much less visually obtrusive than drilling and fracking.

When the well is no longer economic to operate it is abandoned. Cement plugs are installed to stop any remaining gas getting up the well, into an aquifer or out to the surface.

The early stages of the process are by far the most intense — and busier than in conventional oil and gas. More space is needed around the drilling rig because of the frack trucks, and access roads are more heavily used. The average size of a shale gas well pad is about 3 hectares (about 7.5 acres) whereas a conventional drilling rig makes do with two (5 acres). The well pad might be in use for up to 40 years, and so the land would be out of commission for any other use. After it’s all finished, though, the land can be used pretty much as it was before.

What does it mean for local people?

Setting up a hydraulic fracturing rig (Photo by Mike Stephenson)Fracking and drilling can be very noisy close up, and noise will be a nuisance during excavation to prepare the well pad. Flares of burning gas look quiet but can actually be quite noisy. Many of these activities, particularly drilling, will be continuous for 24 hours a day, and drilling can continue for a month without stopping. It can be shielded to reduce noise, but it’s still louder (close up) than most industrial activities people would get close to, like building sites or factories. Noise during production is close to nothing, and after abandonment is zero.

If a well pad is established in wooded land, most of the activity would be hidden by trees –except for the drilling rig, which could be 30 meters tall. During production, there is nothing much to see unless there is a flare of unwanted gas. In open land, shale gas operations look pretty stark and do alter the landscape considerably, leading to local peoples’ worries over the “industrialization” of the landscape. In very dense shale development, the land is divided up and drilled systematically so that access roads split the area into squares or rectangles.

Truck traffic is a significant concern. Trucks bring in water (if they can’t get it locally) and proppant, and take away old drilling mud, drill cuttings and flow-back water. Trucks also excavate and level the well pad. This means a large amount of truck traffic: between 7,000 and 10,000 single truck journeys have been estimated per well pad through the period of construction and fracking, though this would diminish very quickly when the well begins to produce commercially.

 A truck carrying "proppant" — the material, usually sand, used to prop open the cracks made by hydraulic fracturing (Photo by Mike Stephenson) These truck journeys would hardly go unnoticed – there would be more trucks on public highways, affecting traffic flow and increasing congestion. Large trucks on narrow roads are a hazard, and they damage roads and bridges. Trucks carrying hazardous fluids sometimes crash or leak. There are also the emissions of the trucks – and the diesel burnt in the fracking pump engines. Efforts can be made to reroute trucks, and having piped water or electrically-driven pumps at the fracking site can reduce truck traffic considerably.

Some of these activities could be hazardous: for example, trucks might spill chemicals, and waste tanks might overflow in a storm. But these activities can be managed. In many ways, the surface operations of shale gas are no different from building sites.

Is the landscape be industrialized? For fairly long periods in the early fracking phases, there could be intense industrial activity. After this, during production, activity is less intense and obtrusive, and after abandonment, activity diminishes to zero. Whether you think the landscape is scarred and tainted with industry at this stage depends on your point of view. Access roads will remain and will still divide up the land after the wells are plugged, and clearings in the woods will still be visible for a long time after. Some will say that that’s what our landscape looks like already – a pattern of past uses of the land. Others will say it’s unacceptable.

After oil and gas activities, the land may look divided up by access roads, even long after operations have finished. (Photo by Mike Stephenson)

The Author

Mike Stephenson, PhDShale Gas and Fracking coverProf. Mike Stephenson is Chief Scientist at the British Geological Survey, the UK's national geoscience and data center, with 520 scientists and technologists. He began his career as a school teacher in rural Africa and stayed there for nearly 10 years but returned to Britain to pursue research in the Middle East and Asia, including highlights in Oman, Jordan, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. He received a BSc in Geology from Imperial College and an MSc and PhD in Stratigraphy from Sheffield University.

Mike has professorships at Nottingham and Leicester universities. He has and has published over 80 peer-reviewed papers while serving on the editorial boards of several journals and as Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology. His latest book, Shale Gas and Fracking: The Science Behind the Controversy, was published by Elsevier in February.

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