In 1849 Sacramento Valley, California, it was gold. In 1901 Spindletop, Texas, it was black gold. And now, thanks to advances in hydraulic fracturing (commonly called “fracking”) of rock formations to enable access to crude oil and — the Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas is already producing another energy boom for the Lone Star State.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, Spindletop ultimately produced some 153 million barrels of oil. But the overnight boom strained the little town of Beaumont, Texas, from 10,000 to 50,000 residents, with some 500 Texas corporations doing business in Beaumont by 1902. Total expected production for Eagle Ford is at least several times that amount, making it one of the hottest energy resource plays in the world.
While local economies undoubtedly benefit from boom times, a Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) study conducted in 2012 estimated that around $40 billion will be needed over the next 20 years to fix roads overworked and degraded by heavy-truck traffic related to the energy boom. Maintenance for many of those roads is handled by rural towns and counties, placing a greater financial burden on local communities to get the work done. But rapid development can have other consequences beyond increased maintenance costs. In addition to traffic impacts, installing wells and moving the resources produced from them involves materials and chemicals that can be hazardous to health, safety and the environment.
“Our primary goal is to help local communities to plan and prepare for heavy truck traffic and hazmat transportation incidents,” explains TTI Associate Research Scientist David Bierling. He and TTI Research Specialist Debbie Jasek are leading a commodity-flow study across eight counties in the Eagle Ford Shale region. Funding for the project is administered by the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM).
The study identifies the movement of trucks and hazardous materials in and through communities as developers bring wells online and ship recovered resources to refineries. By knowing the types, locations and ways that potentially dangerous materials are transported, local emergency planning committees (LEPCs) and emergency responders can better prepare for incidents like hazardous material spills.
“When something like that happens, first responders have to know what they’re dealing with,” explains Jasek. “For example, if emergency responders roll up on an incident without the right kind of training or equipment, they could be the first casualties. And if they go down, who’ll help the general public?”
In several of the counties, community volunteers are working with their LEPCs to help collect data; industry has also expressed interest in supporting the project.
“We’re excited about the commodity flow study and have several volunteers from across the county who are participating. We plan to use information from this project to specify training needs for our volunteer fire, EMS, and law-enforcement departments, and identify the equipment needed to respond safely. The study will also help us identify high impact routes for future road improvements and support the need for additional roadway funding at local and state levels,” states Wilson County Emergency Management Coordinator LeAnn Hosek.
In addition to hazmat transport information, the project team is collecting information about different types of truck traffic and overall traffic volumes. Researchers are seeing numbers of trucks in the Eagle Ford Shale area that far exceed the design capacities of rural and state roads, resulting in extensive damage to roads and bridges. The growth in traffic may also limit the effectiveness of evacuation routes during a natural disaster like a hurricane, and increased safety hazards for drivers and pedestrians in communities are also being felt.
“We are very concerned about oilfield-related traffic, and higher road speed limits in our county have not made things safer. The Eagle Ford play is welcome in our county, but I wish our new oilfield neighbors would slow down,” says Atascosa County Commissioner Lonnie Gillespie.
The commodity flow study is scheduled for completion in September 2013. Since 2008, TDEM and TTI have worked with local communities to conduct hazmat commodity flow studies in more than two dozen counties across Texas.