Newcastle University-led study assesses the air quality impact of road traffic related to hydraulic fracturing (fracking)
Road traffic related to hydraulic fracking work could increase local NOx and NO2 air pollution emissions by as much as 30%, a team led by researchers at the Newcastle University has calculated.
Using a new Traffic Impacts Model (TIM) for assessing the traffic related impact of fracking the controversial process of drilling into the earth to release gas for energy researchers applied hypothetical scenarios to calculate the potential air pollution effects.
And, the model shows that a single fracking well can create substantial increases in local air quality pollutants, primarily due to the delivery of water and materials to the site.
According to the study, at peak times nitrogen oxide (NOx) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions showed increases of 30% over non-fracking periods, while noise levels also doubled.
Published in the journal Environment International this week (February 24), the study was undertaken as part of the international ReFINE (Research Fracking in Europe) consortium, which is jointly led by Newcastle and Durham universities working with scientists and institutions.
While traffic might not be the immediate thing that springs to mind when considering fracking operations, it is important to understand what the traffic impacts might be and consider how these could be mitigated” – Dr Paul Goodman, Newcastle University
Lead author of the report Dr Paul Goodman, researcher in transport and the environment at Newcastle University, said: Additional road traffic would primarily be heavy duty vehicles such as tankers bringing the water required for the fracturing process to and from the well site.
As well as being highly visible, the presence of tankers on roads has a number of environmental impacts: on greenhouse gas emissions, local air quality issues such as NOx emissions and particulate matter, noise and damage to road surface and structure.
While traffic might not be the immediate thing that springs to mind when considering fracking operations, it is important to understand what the traffic impacts might be and consider how these could be mitigated.
The TIM model found that for a hypothetical scenario of a six-well site developed over an 85-week period and serviced by a rural road network, the default tanker requirements led to a 6% increase in NOx emissions, a 5% increase in CO2 emissions and a 17% increase in axle loading on the roads.
However, at peak times, hourly NOx emissions increased by 30% and noise levels by 3.4dBA. In contrast, for the same six-well site scenario serviced by motorway and high-capacity trunk roads, the increases for all pollutants and axle loading were below 0.5% over the 85-week period.
“Using pipelines, rather than tankers, to transport water to and from well sites could reduce the traffic-related impact of fracking” – Dr Neil Thorpe, Newcastle University
The researchers also used TIM to assess hypothetical large-scale developments in the UK, from a low estimate of 190 wells to an ultra-high estimate of 2970 wells developed from 2015-2050.
Co-author of the report at Newcastle University, Dr Neil Thorpe, said: The findings suggest that while the traffic related to activities at a single well site is unlikely to cause significant changes to long-term averages of air quality, it has potential to cause short-term peaks, especially for NOx.
However, there are ways to mitigate this. Using pipelines, rather than tankers, to transport water to and from well sites could reduce the traffic-related impact of fracking. Another option is to look at how the tankers are fuelled. Widespread use of compressed natural gas or future fuel technologies such as hydrogen would further mitigate greenhouse gas impacts.
“To date we have used hypothetical fracking scenarios to quantify changes against baseline levels, but if test and production wells are given the go-ahead we hope our model can be used as a decision-support tool by governments, local authorities and companies to provide more accurate assessments of the traffic impact of fracking.