From 2009-2011 Dr. Simona L. Perry began investigating the social, cultural, and environmental consequences of the rapid development of Marcellus Shale gas resources in rural communities in northeastern Pennsylvania. Today the general public, and energy companies, tend to refer to this activity with one word: “fracking,” short-hand for hydraulic fracturing, the technological process used to crack the shale, keep it open, and extract the methane, or natural gas.
Using ethnographic interviews, participant observations, and participatory mapping sessions (including photo-voice) Dr. Perry worked with agricultural landowners in Bradford County, PA and looked at how their attachments to and sense of place and community relates spatially to negotiations over competing uses and rights to water and land in light of the rapid expansion of shale gas exploration and development. This work resulted in the development of a community-integrated Geographic Information System (GIS) that can be used by landowners, local officials, and others to track changes in local and gas-related infrastructure, land use, psychologically and culturally important places, and natural landscape features and resources. As part of this work, Dr. Perry also collected archival materials related to the historic and cultural characteristics of the County and its residents, including local newspaper articles and opinion letters, family histories and legends, the history of coal, lumber, farming, and railroads in the County, as well as early settlers’ relationships with each other, the indigenous populations, and natural resources.
Building on these two initial years of field work and archival research, an ethnographic study is underway with Bradford County landowners and residents to get a more in-depth understanding of the history and processes of cultural change in this one community. The focus of data collection during this long-term project (2013-2021) is on the relationship between environmental and cultural change processes broadly and how these processes, including those that may be directly or indirectly related to shale gas and other economic developments, impact individual and community conflict and resilience in Bradford County, Pennsylvania. This includes looking at the history of extractive and land use activities, economic, social, and family conflict, risk tolerance and perceptions, as well as mapping of land-kinship relationships in the County and region.
As resources allow, this long-term fieldwork is being supplemented with expanded research in other rural as well as urban areas of the U.S. Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast where the natural gas being produced in the shale gas fields of Bradford County is being processed, transported, and exported. It is anticipated that by describing and analyzing the multiple locations and communities that are influenced in some way by shale gas exploration, production, and transaction we can begin to better understand how place-based cultural characteristics mediate corporate, government, and local and extra-local community responses to fracking specifically, and fossil fuel energy developments more broadly.