Quality of Life – Economic Impacts
Many communities have the opportunity to benefit from natural resource development in their area. Shale energy development offers the prospect of jobs to local economies; lease payments and royalties for property owners; and increased tax revenues, royalties, and lease payments for state and local governments. Local workers employed on shale gas projects can enhance their skills and increase their earnings potential. Projects can also stimulate demand for local businesses, including the construction, retail, and services industries. The presence of the oil and gas industry can also contribute to or attract investments in regional infrastructure, which benefits other area businesses. Such benefits can improve the economic outlook for the community and its residents, contributing to an enhanced quality of life.
Whether a community will benefit in the long term depends on several factors, principally on its size, the diversity of its economy, and the state of its economy when development begins. Smaller, rural communities with little economic diversity and a high rate of energy development activities are at greater risk of succumbing to a boom/bust cycle. Larger communities can often better absorb some of the adverse effects of development. The rate of development also matters, with a slower pace allowing the community to adapt to changes, as does the extent to which benefits are accrued and spent locally.
One important factor in a community’s long-term economic success is whether its economy becomes dependent upon the oil and gas industry. A study of the costs and benefits of fossil fuel extraction in the western United States showed that the counties that were more dependent on extractive industries (energy focusing) did not fare as well economically in the long term as their counterparts focused on other industries.
A 2014 Duke University report reviewed the fiscal impacts of shale development on local governments in the top producing counties in eight states between 2007 and 2012. It found that county and municipal governments have generally received net financial benefits from shale development in the recent boom, although there has been some regional variation. Notably, costs have thus far outweighed benefits for many local governments in rural areas where large-scale development has occurred rapidly (i.e., in the Bakken Shale region of North Dakota and Montana).
The oil and gas industry can generate three types of employment – direct employment in the activities of well construction, drilling, development, and production or related industry services; indirect employment with suppliers or service industries stimulated by industry demand; or induced employment in jobs created by oil and gas employees spending their income on goods and services. In the oil and gas industry, many of the jobs generated are initial construction jobs, with fewer long-term jobs available in the production phase. It is these long term positions, however, which are considered more important to the area’s long-term economic development.
In the exploratory drilling phase, many of the jobs do not require specialized skills (e.g., construction, truck driving) and the operator may hire locally for such positions. Given that the initial activity is limited to one or a few wells, the impact on the local economy is relatively modest at this stage. Work on the drilling rigs does require specialized skills and the operator tends to bring in outside workers to fill these positions. Locals may be hired into retail and service industries that are responding to the increased demand from the industry and new workers.
A limited number of outside transient workers are moving to the area at this stage, and they tend to seek temporary housing in the community or in other towns within commuting distance. If there is a housing shortage in the area, companies sometimes build temporary housing for their crews on the pad site or in another location. Often referred to as man camps, these temporary housing facilities can be the locus of some social problems (see the Quality of Life – Social Impacts section below).
Local Infrastructure and Services
Given that outside project workers are not too numerous at this point, they usually have a limited impact on local services, principally affecting law enforcement, emergency response, and road maintenance services. The transport of equipment, supplies, water, and wastes to and from the drilling site can impact the quality of roads, bridges, and the local transportation network. Road maintenance and repair is the leading cost for most county governments in areas of oil and gas development.
To handle oversight, permitting, and code enforcement for the new facilities and infrastructure installed for the project, local governments might need additional resources and staffing. State and local governments can collect revenues from shale development from a variety of sources, including property taxes, lease and royalty payments on publicly owned land, and fees for services. Some states impose severance taxes on operators to offset costs, and some local governments institute fees in order to fund infrastructure maintenance. Additional sales taxes can be a main source of revenue for municipal governments as the population increases with development. Local governments might also receive in-kind donations from operators who help to maintain and repair local roads, perhaps by establishing road use agreements with them.
As mentioned above, the Duke University report observed that these revenues have tended to keep pace with or exceed costs associated with shale development for most local governments. In some areas, however, additional revenues might not be commensurate with the increased demand for services. Governments also might receive these revenues later than community needs accumulate, however, leading to a funding gap. This gap might begin to materialize in the exploration phase, but could become more pronounced in the development phase when there can be heavy demands on local infrastructure and services.
Quality of Life – Social Impacts
Depending on the size and existing character of the host community, an influx of temporary workers can bring increased social problems. These workers are often male and generally live in cluster housing, geographically separated from family members. They have disposable income and leisure time with which to seek entertainment or distractions. These circumstances may contribute not only to substance misuse, but also to other problems like traffic accidents, disorderly conduct, violent behavior, unwanted pregnancies, domestic violence, child abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases. Furthermore, there is evidence that illegal drug and gun trafficking, gambling, and prostitution can increase in the surrounding area.
As mentioned in the diseases section, it is unclear whether the increase in such social problems is proportionate to the population increase or is linked to the specific profile of the transient workers in the oil and gas industry. In any case, depending on the size and resources of the community involved, some communities can find their law enforcement, health care, and emergency response systems overwhelmed by this spike in demand.
Such issues may begin to emerge during the exploration phase and significantly increase during the development phase. Over time, however, as the industry matures to the production phase, the number of transient workers declines and more permanent workers fill the long-term development and production positions.
Quality of Life – Noise Impacts
Overview of the Effects of Noise
Excessive noise is not merely an annoyance, but also a health concern. Elevated noise levels can affect both hearing and speech comprehension, and can impact other physical and mental functions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recommended outdoor limits for noise at 55 A-weighted decibels (dB [A]), and indoor limits at 45 dB (A). The agency has also noted that a 24-hour exposure above 70 dB (A) may lead to permanent hearing impairment.
Prolonged exposure to elevated noise levels is associated with a range of health problems. It can activate the sympathetic and endocrine systems and contribute to cardiovascular disease, prenatal complications, and immunosuppression, as well as increased incidence of diabetes, mental disorders like anxiety, and general physical and mental fatigue. These health issues can occur even when people have become habituated to the noise and claim to no longer be disturbed by it.
One significant impact of noise is sleep disturbance. Uninterrupted sleep is a prerequisite for physical and mental health and well-being. For a good night’s sleep, sound levels should not exceed 30 dB (A), which corresponds with average nighttime noise levels of 25 to 30 dB (A) in quiet rural and suburban areas. , Maintaining a quiet ambiance is important because even when individuals are not awakened by it, noise can cause detectable changes in heart and brain activity, as well as in next-day stress levels.
Smaller increases in the normal ambient sound levels can also be a stressor. Increases of only 6 dB (A) above ambient levels can be detected by the average person. , Exposure to this level of noise can lead to complaints of annoyance, headache, and mental and physical fatigue. The effects can vary greatly, however, depending on individual sensitivities and circumstances. With prolonged irritating noise, people may experience feelings of aggression and declines in cognition and performance.
Noise and Shale Development Operations
With shale development operations often taking place around-the-clock – often in otherwise quiet rural areas, where nighttime sounds can be as low as 25 to 30 dB (A) – communities are frequently concerned about the noise from these operations. According to a study of a shale development site in West Virginia, noise from diesel-powered equipment and machinery such as drills, pumps, and compressors averaged 70 dB (A) at the periphery of the site. Noises above 55 dB (A) – the level at which sound begins to become a nuisance, according to WHO – occurred frequently, with occasional short bursts of noise above 85 dB (A).
Once drilling and hydraulic fracturing begin, the level of ambient noise can increase by 37 to 42 dB (A). Well pad sites are noisiest during the phases of road and pad construction; drilling and hydraulic fracturing; and well completion. This entire process can extend intermittently over several weeks to months for the first well. When water for hydraulic fracturing is not piped to the site or recycled, large numbers of truck trips are required – up to 1,148 one-way heavy truck trips and 831 one-way light truck trips in the early phase of well development, according to one estimate. A study in Colorado found that water haulage trucks emit 88 dB (A) at 50 feet and 68 dB (A) at 500 feet. ,
Activities that can generate noise during the exploratory drilling phase and beyond include:
- the construction of access roads and well pads, requiring earth-moving equipment and gravel deliveries
- multiple truck trips to and from the site
- the drilling and hydraulic fracturing of each well, which often proceed 24 hours a day
- venting or flaring during well completion, both of which can occur around the clock for several days
There are a number of measures that can be taken to reduce or avoid the impacts of noise from shale development projects. These are described in the “What Can Be Done?” section below.
Quality of Life – Visual Impacts
Much shale development takes place in rural areas, with their mix of natural landscape, forests, agricultural vistas, and small communities. For communities reliant on sectors such as agriculture, tourism, and recreation, the installation of industrial infrastructure can negatively impact natural and visual resources. Surveys indicate that residents and visitors in these regions are concerned about the potential for development to diminish aesthetics, property values, tourism, and public enjoyment. From a health perspective, whether in a rural or another setting, residents can experience distress as changes to their environment materialize, contributing to anxiety, depression, or anger.
With shale development, multiple wells are often located on a single pad; according to industry estimates, for instance, over 90% of shale gas wells in the Marcellus Shale region will be located on multi-well pads. This impacts a larger area per site compared to single-well pads, although fewer well pads overall are distributed throughout an area and require fewer access roads. Infrastructure that could have visual impacts includes the well pad site itself, fluid retention basins, access roads, and utility corridors (electric service, water pipelines, and gas-gathering pipelines). Off-site storage facilities and centralized water impoundments (often covering up to 5 acres), as well as increased population density and accompanying traffic can also cause changes to the viewshed. In addition, compressor stations, which remain in place throughout the productive life of the wells, are generally installed every 50 to 100 miles. ,
As with noise, the greatest visual impacts occur during the exploratory drilling and development phases, due to the disruption of the landscape and installation of the well pad and its associated infrastructure. Although estimates vary, overall site disturbance during this phase averages 7.4 acres for a multi-well pad, and 4.8 acres for a single well pad (both estimates include portions of access roads and utility corridors). The well pad alone averages 3.5 acres of disturbed land during the drilling and fracturing phase for a multi-well pad, although this can vary significantly. For example, in the Fayetteville Shale region, multi-well pad disturbance ranges from 1.7 acres to 5.7 acres.
Access roads add to site disturbance and may also have the requisite utility corridors running alongside. The roads are often 20 to 40 feet wide and average 400 feet in length (again, there is variation – they have been permitted for up to 3,000 feet in the Marcellus shale region ). The installation of roads and utility corridors generally creates a linear visual disturbance in the landscape and may cause the fragmentation of wildlife habitat.
In addition to the infrastructure, numerous tanks, trucks, diesel-powered equipment, personnel sheds, and rigs for drilling (up to 100 or more feet high) and fracturing (up to 150 feet high) can contribute to the visual footprint of the site. Depending on topography and any screening methods employed, daytime visual impacts are greatest up to a half mile away. Furthermore, work can take place around the clock during active well development. The lights used at night for safety purposes can disturb residents close to the site and generate an ambient sky glow. If flaring is conducted, the open flame can also be seen at a distance.
PA Gas Well. Photo by Sara Gillooly, Tyler Rubright, Samantha Malone
Quality of Life – Psychological Impacts
In addition to these physical changes in a community after shale energy development begins, shifts in quality-of-life perceptions can also occur, depending on the character of the community. In smaller communities with a strong sense of community character, residents may describe no longer having a sense of peace, psychological refuge, or a rural quality of life. These feelings do not necessarily correlate with actual damage or direct health impacts, but can nonetheless create stress that sometimes leads to physical illness. Such feelings can become much more acute with the accelerated and cumulative changes in the development phase. Reactions to the changes brought by development can vary, however. In economically depressed areas, some residents may welcome newcomers and a sense of revitalization that development brings to their area.