Oil wells vs. subdivisions

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

At a recent debate on fracking, Peter Champe of the Longmont anti-fracking group Our Future, Our Health, Our Longmont, summed up his group’s brief. Fracking is a major industrial activity, he said, and major industrial activities aren’t allowed in residential neighborhoods.

Trouble is, that’s not quite accurate.

There is at least one major industrial activity that is allowed in residential neighborhoods. It’s called home building. Home building is an industrial activity that is as major and intensive as oil drilling — and its impacts, both immediate and longterm, are in many respects similar or worse.

A square mile-sized subdivision (640 acres) developed to a density of three homes per acre (many now have four or five homes per acre) would have almost 2,000 homes on it. In contrast, an oil company attempting to produce the oil under a one- to two-square-mile area today would drill multiple horizontal wells from a single site or pad of no more than five to 10 acres. The number of wells that could be drilled from a single pad could be anywhere from six to 60, but likely, a company developing a one- to two-square-mile property would drill around half a dozen.

Before a developer can build homes or an oil company can drill wells, site preparation must take place. The developer may have to level parts of his site and contour others to ensure proper drainage and to create buildable lots. He will have to create, grade, stabilize and eventually pave an internal road network of several miles. And he will have to excavate the basements and foundations for 2,000 homes.

The oil company, in contrast, will have to level and prepare one five- to 10-acre site for the drilling rig and some production equipment. It will have to grade a single access road to it. It will have to install a pipeline to connect its wells to a gas gathering system.

A subdivision developer would also have to install gas lines — gas mains throughout his subdivision and tap lines to the 2,000 homes. The homebuilder would also have to install water lines and sewer lines, and hundreds of utility poles.

According to the anti-fracking group Western Resource Advocates, Douglas County found that a pad that was the site of a six-well drilling and fracking operation generated 11,040 trips over a 265-day period — or an average of 42 trips a day. Of those, 6,000 trips were hauling fracking water to the site and 3,000 were hauling wastewater away.

The number of truck trips that would be generated by the construction of a 2,000-home subdivision would probably be several times more than that. Trucks would have to haul heavy construction equipment in and out; other trucks would have to haul out dirt that was removed for basements and foundations, still others would have to haul in enough concrete for 2,000 foundations, and for curbs, gutters and sidewalks for 2,000 homes. And still others would have to deliver the construction materials for 2,000 homes to the site.

Of course, when drilling for oil and gas, there is always a small but real risk of explosions and accidental spills. Just like there is in home building. Gas, water and sewer lines break. Like drilling, construction involves the use of hazmats. And when it comes to releasing VOCs (volatile organic compounds) into the environment, laying down asphalt in subdivision streets and tarring the roofs of a couple thousand homes is going to release plenty of them.

The amount of time it takes to drill the six wells (say 265 days) is a lot less than the time it takes to build 2,000 homes — several years, even in a healthy economy. So the homebuilders will be disturbing their neighbors for a lot longer than the oil guys will be disturbing theirs.

Then there’s the matter of the ongoing impacts from drilling the wells and building the homes — like traffic. The completed wells will generate a small number of trips per year, mostly for routine maintenance. The typical American detached single-family suburban home generates between five and seven vehicle trips a day, so the subdivision will generate between 10,000 and 14,000 vehicle trips a day.

The oil wells will probably be abandoned after 20 or 30 years. Most residential neighborhoods are still cranking out traffic (and greenhouse gases) a century after their construction.

And so on. The point is that when it comes to “major industrial activities” and their ongoing environmental consequences, home building trumps oil drilling — even in neighborhoods where the grass is neatly trimmed (and the weeds are regularly nuked with petro-chemical herbicides).

The NIMBYs who are howling about drilling and fracking should be more tolerant. Their lifestyle depends on what comes out of fracked wells. Take away their natural gas and gasoline produced by drilling and fracking, and civilization as they know it collapses.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.