Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Back to the Stone Age in America - An Unintended Consequence of Energy Independence

A recent news item out of Texas provides us with a look at two issues facing the United States; aging infrastructure and the inability of governments at all levels to keep up with the maintenance required and the unprecedented impact of increased heavy loads in certain parts of the nation on that infrastructure.

Let's open with a few facts about the highway infrastructure in Texas, the subject of this posting:

1.) Texas has 306,404 miles of public roads.

2.) Texas's roads are in relatively poor condition overall with 38 percent in poor or mediocre condition.

3.) Texas's per capita annual highway vehicle miles of 9,267 puts it in 37th place in America.

4.) Texas's gasoline tax of 20 cents per gallon has not increased in over two decades.

Here's a map showing the location and names for the state's counties for your reference:

Now, on to the subject of this posting.

A recent announcement from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) revealed that the state is set to convert 83 miles of roads from asphalt to gravel and that the number of roads and total miles converted is expected to rise over the next several months.  According to the TxDOT Deputy Executive Officer and Chief Engineer John Barton, the savings of converting roads to gravel versus repaving and maintaining them as asphalt roads is seven to one.  As an aside, the roads that are converted to gravel will have their speed limits lowered to 30 to 40 miles per hour.  The impacted roads are located in  South Texas (Live Oak, LaSalle, Dimmit and Zavala Counties) and West Texas (Culberson and Reeves Counties).

The damage done to these rural roads is relatively recent and can be linked to one cause; the oil industry.  As shown on this map, South Texas, in particular, is the focus of drilling activity for the Eagle Ford Shale (a lithology that requires fracking to produce hydrocarbons), the key to Texas's future as an oil producing state and the location of four of the counties undergoing the conversion from asphalt to gravel:

A recent UTSA study suggests that there could be an additional 5000 wells drilled into the Eagle Ford by 2020.  According to Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Moseley, 1200 truck trips are needed for each oil well and 300 are needed every year to transport the produced crude oil.  The 1200 truck trips alone are equivalent to 8 million passenger vehicles.  Part of the problem exists because many of these rural roads are only designed to handle maximum loads of 58,000 pounds but are being subjected to loads in excess of 80,000 pounds.  As well, since many of the roads are only 16 feet wide, the extra wide loads used in oil field operations mean that oncoming or passing motorists must divert to the shoulder, resulting in additional road surface damage.   

Some Texas counties are seeing significant increases in vehicle crashes as a result of the increased traffic; since 2008, Goliad country has seen an increase of 1422 percent, Frio country has seen an increase of 788 percent, Wallacy county has seen an increase of 696 percent and McMullen country has seen an increase of 695 percent.  Several counties including Dimmit, LaSalle and Karnes are seeing roads deteriorating at rates between 14.1 percent and 32.6 percent since 2010 and the TxDOT expects that the deterioration will continue for another 10 to 15 years.

The Texas government is finding it difficult to fund the needs of TxDOT.  Earlier this year, officials from TxDOT told the state government that they needed and additional $4 billion annually to maintain current congestion rates and an additional $1.6 billion to repair road damage done by the energy sector.  In South Texas alone, TxDOT estimates that the damage done has already reached the $2 billion mark with $1 billion in damage to the state highway system and $1 billion in damage to municipal and county road systems.  In DeWitt County alone, a study by Naismith Engineering concludes that the county's 400 miles of roads would require over $400 million in construction and maintenance over the next 20 years, $350 million more than the county allocated for its roads.  On the upside, since 2010, the county has collected $1.6 million in fees from oil companies who are assessed a road repair fee of $8000 for every well that they drill.  Unfortunately, that's just a drop in the bucket compared to the present and future needs of the county.

The difficulty in funding the road restoration seems rather odd given that the UTSA study projects that the Eagle Ford play will add $1.24 billion to state coffers in 2012 alone and that the production of oil and natural gas from the Eagle Ford will total $32 billion by 2022, not to mention the additional associated economic benefits brought to South Texas.

What a beautiful example of unintended (and costly) consequences of what would generally be considered positive economic growth!


  1. Earthquakes, ground water depletion, ground water polution. Any of these ring a bell?

  2. It is well known that trucks are responsible for virtually all of the road damage from vehicles due to their excessive axle loads. In essence, our gas tax dollars pretty much subsidize trucking. No wonder rail doesn't compete as well as it could.

    BTW, in PA, we have no extraction tax, but the Oil Cos. do pay substantial amount for road upgrades. So the roads are OK, but the pads and pipelines will stay long after the gas is gone. What a deal...

  3. Oh my god! You mean to say 0.027% of Texas roads are being converted to gravel!?!

    1. ya you know it, minute isn't it. but it still is substantial, figure it must be amazing considering the magnitude of service access roads for the oil extraction machines,tanker truck, above ground storage facilities,etc...