As fracking looms, North Carolina officials worry about road damage

“Flaring” occurs after the well has been drilled and before it is put into operation. Fracking, also known as horizontal natural gas drilling, started in Pennsylvania several years ago.
“Flaring” occurs after the well has been drilled and before it is put into operation. Fracking, also known as horizontal natural gas drilling, started in Pennsylvania several years ago. MCT

Some of the quiet country roads of central North Carolina might not be so quiet much longer.

Earlier this year, the state legislature voted to end a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, an extraction technique known as fracking, where water, sand and chemicals are pumped deep underground to release fossil fuels from shale rock. Gov. Pat McCrory said the state had sat on the sidelines of gas exploration for too long.

While Raleigh’s embrace of fracking has sparked a spirited debate between economic potential and environmental concerns, infrastructure issues also play a key role in the fight for North Carolina’s energy future.

With the state no longer sidelined, North Carolina Department of Transportation officials are wondering how the thousands of truckloads of chemicals, water, sand and mechanical equipment associated with fracking could affect the state’s rural road system.

Some roads “are going to experience a lifetime of truck traffic in just a few weeks,” said Brandon Jones, a NCDOT division maintenance engineer.

No one knows how big the natural gas boom will actually be in North Carolina’s Deep River shale basin, which stretches across several counties in the central part of the state.

But Jones said NCDOT’s Oil and Gas Exploration and Production Committee was already focusing on potential impacts to the state’s secondary road system, composed of around 60,000 miles of small roads in primarily rural areas. Major U.S. and state highways are considered primary roads in North Carolina.

“The secondary system was really built for small agriculture,” said Jones, who is on the committee. “Most of these secondary roads were really built with minimal pavement structure because the purpose wasn’t to carry a lot of trucks or heavy weights.”

Jones said that could result in potholes and deteriorated road conditions.

This isn’t unusual. Rural roads in North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas have experienced damage from truck traffic associated with shale development, according to a September report by the Government Accountability Office.

Extraction methods such as fracking and horizontal drilling have fueled boom times in areas of the Bakken Shale in Montana and North Dakota; the Eagle Ford Shale in south Texas; and the Marcellus Shale, which includes areas of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

But fracking has not come without controversies, from the payments to landowners to concerns about air and water quality around fracking sites, as well as damage to rural roads. The committee is hoping to learn from the experiences of these other states in order to protect North Carolina’s rural roads.

“Even if the (Deep River Shale) operations are reduced from what you might see in those states, we are going to have damages to our roads,” said Ricky Greene, deputy chief engineer for NCDOT’s Division of Highways.

Unlike many other states, North Carolina counties do not maintain any roads; the state is responsible for overseeing and maintaining one of the largest roadway systems in the country.

But in states with fracking, “it has been much more difficult to predict where the biggest road deterioration is going to happen because it depends on the location and intensity of shale development,” the GAO found.

To lessen the damage, North Carolina might follow the practices of other states and set up road-use agreements, in which drilling companies work to repair and maintain the roads they use extensively.

Pennsylvania uses these road-use pacts, also known as maintenance agreements, to maintain roads in areas with heavy truck traffic, said Scott Christie, deputy secretary for highway administration at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

But Christie said the process came with a learning curve. “There was probably an initial period where the (oil and gas) industry was not quite aware of how weak our secondary road system is,” Christie said. “But they quickly got up to speed.”

Christie said about a quarter of the 44,000 miles of Pennsylvania state roads were “posted,” meaning the roads are marked by signs with weight limits for heavy trucks. Companies that transport fracking materials on those trucks must enter into maintenance agreements to use the roads.

He said companies had spent more than $500 million in the past five years repairing state roads under the agreements. They also have to pay for state inspections of road damage in areas under the agreements, he said.

“Those (rural) roads really can’t take a thousand water trucks and cranes coming in a brief period of time to start the drilling operations,” Christie said.

The North Carolina oil and gas exploration committee has looked extensively at lessons learned from Pennsylvania and has met with PennDOT officials about their efforts to maintain rural roads.

“It gave us good perspective on a very busy area in this industry,” Jones said.

NCDOT state maintenance operations engineer Emily McGraw said the committee must turn in its findings to the North Carolina legislature in January. The first permits for natural gas exploration in the state could be issued next spring.