WILKES-BARRE – More divides backers and opponents of natural gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale than disagreements over the safety of its technical processes or its potential economic benefit; people's homes, ways of life and social identity hang in the balance, according to ethnographic researcher Simona Perry.
This has become much more than just a technical or economic issue, Perry said Wednesday. The issue has become embedded in the beliefs, attitudes and perceptions around the local and notion of a culture, of what a place means and what health means.
Perry is an applied anthropologist who for the past three years has been studying how Northeastern Pennsylvania residents perceive the natural gas development happening around them, in conjunction with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. and her own consulting firm in Maryland.
She spoke at a lecture hosted by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research at Wilkes University about the preliminary findings of a pilot study into perceptions of the industry in Bradford County, which she called the geographic epicenter of shale gas development in Pennsylvania to date.
Her research is grounded in interviews and focus groups with landowners, farmers, gas workers and others; community psychology surveys; analysis of storylines in national and local news coverage, archival research and other inductive research techniques. Such research is important, Perry said, in finding real solutions to the challenges the industry's presence poses, which the polarization of perspectives about domestic drilling has made all the more daunting.
I see the fracking debate as something that could go on forever, because it is so entrenched in the pro-gas, anti-gas rhetoric, she said. Somehow that needs to be broken down.
While new to the region, Perry said much about the boom has been seen before.
Proprietary, sometimes hazardous chemicals have been used in hydraulic fracturing since the process' inception decades ago, and the tax incentives, public subsidies and regulatory exemptions that have allowed the shale gas boom follow a long history of political influence by the fossil fuels industry.
What is new about the shale gas boom, and what has most affected residents of the communities it touches, Perry said, has been the enormous scale and rapid pace of development, its close proximity to private homes, workplaces, churches, schools and other social centers, and the larger storyline of energy independence and climate change surrounding domestic gas development.
Individuals that are living in the midst of this type of development … are being asked to sacrifice, everything in some cases, for some greater good, Perry said. And this did not seem to be a concern for most people; in fact it's a source of great pride. But for others, they are concerned that they have no assurances that the benefits of the sacrifice will outweigh the risks.
Previous studies of resource boomtowns undergoing rapid economic development, primarily in the western United States, identified trends with regards to social organization, quality of life, family and social ties, local government and economics, as well as in the reactions of community residents to those changes.
They identified four distinct stages of boomtown attitudes, Perry said -- enthusiasm, uncertainty, near panic and fear, and adaptation and recovery. A similar pattern appears to be unraveling in Bradford County, she said.
It's very similar to what those previous studies show, Perry said. …All that's played out and even some of the recovery has played out, people's adaptations to all this.
The social science research suggests local communities should plan for the ways that extractive industries like gas drilling may exacerbate divides in communities, including ever-widening disparities between rich and poor, women and men, young and old, and even how we define what prosperity as well as poverty look like.
I think the next step is to stop debating and to solve these problems, Perry said.