Fracking changes the fabric of communities, especially small rural communities, and not for the better. A study published in Australasian Psychiatry in 2013 found that the impacts of mining and unconventional gas developments on landholders in Queensland placed rural communities 'under sustained stress'. Participants in the study reported significant impacts on the health, social fabric and economy of local communities.
Another study, reportedly the first of its kind, looked at the social costs of fracking on rural communities in Pennsylvania:
The fracking boom has brought heavy trucks crowding rural roads and out-of-state workers flooding small towns, often overwhelming local housing, police and public health capacities. The influx of transient workers with disposable income and little to do in their off hours is a recipe for trouble in small-town America, where alcohol-related crimes, traffic accidents, emergency room visits and sexually transmitted infection have all been on the rise.
In Australia, we are already seeing communities reporting their concerns – in fact mobilising – to protect their way of life against an unwanted and toxic industry. Numerous research studies, newspaper headlines, government reviews and inquiries variously document the fears expressed by residents in regions slated for fracking.
Community concerns range from exposure to toxic chemicals and the risk of industrial accidents like chemical spills, explosions and fires to increased traffic related injuries and fatalities. Families are deeply concerned for the long-term health and well being of their children.
Communities are worried about the social effects of a FIFO workforce descending on their town. These concerns include spiralling housing costs, which skyrocket initially then come crashing down again when the boom has busted, and plummeting property values of properties surrounded by gas wells. Reduced access to community facilities (medical, sporting, recreational, etc) that usually only need to cater for a small resident population, and the increased potential for social problems, including assaults, vandalism, alcohol and drug abuse, are also issues concerning locals.
Unlike most mainland states, the Tasmanian Government has taken a cautious approach to fracking. Most state governments on the mainland have instead embraced the unconventional gas industry, ignored the effect on communities and seriously mishandled the necessary regulation and controls to protect the public and the environment. On the mainland this has resulted in an unhealthy battle between the community, backed by much independent medical and scientific expertise, and an alliance of governments and industry.
Another divisive aspect is companies' use of non-disclosure agreements. Landowners who sign leases with fracking companies can be asked to sign non-disclosure agreements regarding the amount of compensation they receive for leasing their land. This is another way that companies can divide local communities. When landowners with very generous terms begin to advocate on behalf of the gas company, the fuse is set – particularly when people with no or minimal compensation are affected by the same noise, light and air pollution and contamination risks that neighbours are being compensated for.
A social licence to operate is the community's tacit consent for a business or project to exist. The problem is that the language of licencing suggests a formality that doesn't exist. Communities don't enter into legally enforceable 'social contracts' with fracking companies. And they're powerless to revoke non-existent licences when their conditions are breached.
One definition of a social licence is that it's based on 3 core elements: legitimacy, trust and consent.
The momentum of the Lock the Gate movement shows that mainland Australians have withdrawn consent because:
- they lack trust in fracking companies to behave as good corporate citizens, or gasfields as good neighbors
- they lack trust in their legislators and regulators to act in their interest
- they don't regard prioritising fracking over national parks and other places of environmental significance or private farming and residential properties as legitimate.
Landowners with experience of landsmen, company men (or women) who tout for land to be leased for fracking, say they felt they had no choice but to sign agreements with gas companies. People who signed say they're horrified at how their farms have been taken over; and real estate agents have told them the gas wells make their properties unsaleable.
They say the promises made and the undertakings extracted often bear no resemblance to what happens on their property once they've signed. Most of the time their contact at the company can't be reached and when they can, nothing seems to improve despite their promises of corrective action. Or they tell you that that's the way it is and nothing can be done; you've misunderstood what you've signed.
The tactics of company reps who make direct approaches to farmers and landowners are likened to buying a car from a smooth, high-pressure car salesman. But be warned: those nice people from the company who want to lease your land to drill for gas might not have your interests front and centre.
A document leaked to the media in the US supposedly lists instructions for company salesmen when dealing with landowners. The authenticity of the document hasn't been verified, so it could be a hoax. Some of the key points include:
- The first visit is the most crucial
- Tell landowners that all their neighbours have signed; even if their neighbours haven't, this can push an undecided landowner to sign
- Landowners won't know if their neighbours have signed, and even if they do they'll want to sign so they do not lose out on the potential profits (payments)
- Once they've signed, you can show the signed leases to undecided neighbours for added pressure
- The overall plan will require multiple well heads, where we pump in high volumes of water and chemicals. DO NOT DISCUSS this point
- We want no correlation between fracking and enhanced oil recovery processes. We don't want landowners aware we may have to drill many well heads in a single area
- After we have the leases signed we have the freedom to use the land as we see fit
Farmers in Queensland who endured the worst drought in a century initially saw the extra cash promised by the gas companies to sink wells on their property as a welcome windfall.
They turn up to your place and say, 'This is what we're going to do,' not 'This is what we want to do'.
Nev Stiller, a grazier near Toowoomba, who's is fighting the construction of a 600-man work camp 400 metres from his front door, says one gas company representative told him only half-jokingly: ''You know we own the country, don't you?'' The mining companies' attitude seems to be that landholders are in the road of the resources they want and they'll just have to be got rid of.
APPEA concedes some gas companies haven't treated landowners properly and that the 'sign or we'll see you in court' approach should be replaced by a fairer, more inclusive and more respectful process. Cold comfort for the families who felt they were railroaded to sign.
In February 2013 a federal parliamentary inquiry found that fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers had a serious downside for rural and regional Australia. In part this was because housing shortages in the small rural towns around the mines sent rents and other costs soaring, making it impossible for locals to rent and forcing people on lower wages – ordinary non-mining wages - to struggle to meet the basic costs of living. The Inquiry also heard that most of the money paid to FIFO workers was not spent in the local area, which caused local businesses to suffer. The inquiry recommended changes to the taxation system to provide incentives for mining workers to live where they work.
A scoping study prepared by the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government to represent the views of local councils to the Inquiry highlighted a number of key issues for local government in managing the influx of FIFO workers. Some of the problems the researchers identified were that:
- Demand outstripped the community's capacity to supply community and emergency services, eg local residents forced to travel to larger towns to access essential services such as medical and allied health services; difficulties planning and providing infrastructure and services; reduced access to, and higher cost of, flights; and increased vehicle traffic that damaged local roads and buildings
- Mining companies and FIFO workers contributed little to the local economy, eg contracts go to external providers not local suppliers and FIFO workers' wages go to 'home' communities; mining companies don't source labour locally and only offer FIFO jobs, with no option for FIFO workers to relocate to the local area; the 'skills drain' in local communities makes it difficult for local businesses to recruit and retain staff
- Less integration of FIFO workers into communities results in social problems, such as violence and crime; long-term loss of social capital, eg non-participation of FIFO workers threatens the survival of volunteer, community and sporting groups; safety issues around worker fatigue, increased vehicle traffic etc
The study also found that local government had no input in the approval processes for mining developments. In at least some jurisdictions there were no regulations that required mining companies to seek approval (or advise either local government or state government) for the construction of FIFO camps. Non-conformance with license applications and other local government regulatory requirements raised public health and safety issues about water, sewerage and waste management services and difficulties in the planning and delivery of disaster management and emergency services.
It was noted that mining companies made no capital contributions towards the local systems and services they impacted on, resulting in councils and ratepayers bearing the cost burden.
There is a massive shift in the number of heavy vehicles passing through towns and regions when fracking operations are underway. Construction materials, heavy machinery, tanker loads of hazardous chemicals, sand, water and fracking waste fluids and solids have to be transported to and from drill sites.
Heavy vehicle traffic is also a source of accidents on the narrow twisting roads in country areas where roads and bridges weren't designed to carry heavy machinery and tankers full of fracking inputs or waste.
Gas companies don't contribute to the maintenance of local roads, although their heavy tanker and drill rig machinery movements place huge tolls on these roads. The constant stream of heavy traffic degrades highways, arterial roads and main roads that run through country towns and villages. The increased traffic impacts on road safety and creates an additional tax burden on ratepayers and taxpayers.
A 2012 energy conference heard that in major shale states in the US, the cost to public authorities for road maintenance was substantially higher than the revenue they received from shale gas. For example, in Pennsylvania, revenue to the state was $204 million, while road maintenance costs were $3.5 billion.