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Fracking traffic would increase local air pollution, says study

Words: Laura Edgar
Fracking / iStock_000022131270

Traffic generated by fracking in the UK would increase air pollution at peak travel times, according to research conducted by Newcastle University.

The research, published in the journal Environment International, was undertaken as part of the ReFINE (Research Fracking in Europe) consortium and considers a new Traffic Impacts Model (TIM) for assessing the traffic-related impact of hydraulic fracturing operations.

Applying hypothetical scenarios based on data from America, the model suggests that a single well can create “substantial increases in local air quality pollutants”, primarily because of the delivery of water and materials to the site.

The researchers say that at peak times nitrogen oxide and dioxide (NOx) showed increases of 30 per cent over non-fracking periods, while noise levels doubled.

Dr Paul Goodman, researcher in transport and the environment at Newcastle University and lead author on the report, 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, and 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."

TIM suggests that for a hypothetical situation of a six-well site that is developed over 85 weeks and served by rural roads, the default assumptions on tanker requirements led to a 6 per cent increase in NOx emissions, a 5 per cent increase in CO2 emissions, and 17 per cent increase in axle loading on the roads.

At peak times though, hourly NOx emissions were reported to increase by 30 per cent and noise levels by 3.4 decibel A-weighting.

If the same six-well situation was serviced by a motorway and high-capacity trunk roads, the research suggests that increases for all pollutants and axle loading was below 0.5 per cent over the same period.

Dr Neil Thorpe, who is leading the transport team on fracking at Newcastle University and co-authored the report, said using pipelines rather than tankers to transport water to and from well sites could reduce the traffic-related impact of fracking. He also suggested looking at how tankers are fuelled.

“Widespread use of compressed natural gas or future fuel technologies such as hydrogen would further mitigate greenhouse gas impacts.”

Thorpe concluded: "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."

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