Fracking and the Neoliberalization of the Hydro-Social Cycle in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale



Oil and gas firms are utilizing a controversial drilling technique, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to access unconventional natural gas reserves in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale. The potential impacts of fracking are creating sharp tensions between stakeholders over the costs and benefits of drilling within their communities. In particular, much contention has emerged over water resources as the process both uses and degrades billions of gallons of water. This paper takes a critical look at the way multi-scale neoliberal discourses obfuscate comprehensive understandings of fracking's effect on water resources. We turn to the neoliberal environments literature as a way to situate the economic logic that normalizes the impacts of fracking on resources, particularly in the absence of an effective regulatory framework. We argue that neoliberal pro-fracking arguments are (re)defining the relationship among people, the environment, and institutions, which in turn normalizes the impacts on communities and the resources on which they depend.

As energy and water consumption rise across human populations, many societies are experiencing chronic water and energy vulnerabilities (Wang 2009). This phenomenon is evident in the growing trend of high volume, slickwater hydraulic fracturing paired with the technology of horizontal drilling for natural gas that is occurring in many regions across the United States (U.S.). Hydraulic fracturing (also called fracing, hydrofracking, and heretofore, fracking) is a drilling technique that improves access to unconventional natural gas within the miniscule pores of shale deposits (Soeder 2010).

Public and environmental health concerns about the natural gas boom have largely surrounded the fracking process. Fracking is an extraction technique developed in the late 1940s to access otherwise inaccessible fuel deposits interbedded within geologic strata such as coal or shale beds. Once costly and inefficient, the technique has experienced a phenomenal surge, contributing to one of the largest domestic energy booms in U.S. history (Soeder 2010; Gold 2012). The process involves drilling a horizontal well into shale or coal deposits and then creating a minor earthquake by injecting large volumes of water (from 1.5 million gallons to 8 million gallons of water per frack), sand, proppants, and lubricants into the well. Each fracking event creates small cracks in shale deposits, forcing previously inaccessible natural gas to the surface, and wells can be fracked up to eighteen times. However, fracking technology depends heavily on the use of undisclosed types and amounts of toxic chemicals (Horwitt 2009). These chemicals, as well as combustion materials and other gases, are released in the fracking process and could pose acute and chronic long-term hazards to public health. Additionally, these substances may also endanger long-term water and air quality. In particular, much contention has emerged over water resources, as the fracking process both uses and degrades billions of gallons of water, and can pollute surface and aquifer reserves with methane and other toxic chemicals (Osborn et al. 2011). These unknowns, as well as accounts of methane-contaminated drinking water wells in the vicinity of fracking across the country, have forced the EPA and state environmental agencies to review their policies related to fracking (Osborn et al. 2011).

The complex energy-water nexus (whereby energy and water are understood to be inextricably linked and vital to human welfare (Sehlke 2009)) is made explicit by the process of fracking for natural gas. The natural gas economy is surging rapidly (Kusnetz 2011) and is often touted as a solution for current and future energy demand. Simultaneously, each fracking well pad requires billions of gallons of water – laced with toxic chemicals – to extract shale gas, as well as creating a need to dispose of the resulting “flowback” wastewater (Urbina 2011). As research on fracking develops, however, there is mounting evidence that communities above targeted shale gas plays are vulnerable to environmental health risks inherent to this industrial extraction process (Colborn et al. forthcoming; Adams 2011; Osborn et al. 2011). Nonetheless, proponents suggest that current and future U.S. energy consumption necessitates the use of this controversial technique and related water usage (USEIA 2011). Many boosters situate a defense of fracking in a multi-scalar argument about national energy needs, energy security, and possibilities for rural economic growth. Conversely, as communities are recognizing the strong connection between fracking and contaminated water resources, growing contingents of stakeholders are beginning to raise objections to gas development in their watershed.

This is bearing out in Pennsylvania's Northeastern Tier of the Marcellus Shale gas play where sharp tensions are emerging between proponents and opponents of regional fracking (Maykuth 2010). It is in this context – similar to places in Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas – where stakeholders must wade through a diverse range of narratives regarding the costs and benefits of fracking, in order to determine whether or not to allow drilling on their land and within their communities. Perceptions of the hydro-social cycle (Heynen et al. 2005; Swyngedouw 2006; Bakker 2010) are critical to understanding this decision-making process. The hydro-social cycle is Swyngedouw's (2009) conceptualization of the inextricably linked relationship between water and society, and likewise, “how hydro-social transformations are imbedded in and infused by class, gender, ethnic, or other power struggles” (57). In this interlinked socio-ecological hydraulic process, opponents and proponents seek to define water resources in differing terms (Hope 2009). On the one hand, fracking proponents use neoliberal benefit-cost analysis to construct water as just one input in a fully economized hydro-social cycle. In this view, stakeholders must weigh the potential risks to water against their personal economic welfare, their communities’ environmental health, as well as the economic welfare of the nation as a whole. In contrast, opponents of fracking often frame a more complex narrative about water. In this view, not only are local places and associated resources experiencing social, economic, and ecological costs that far outweigh the benefits of natural gas production, stakeholders are (re)framing the protection of water resources in non-economic terms, such as a life-giving resource critical to community values and as a human/non-human right (e.g., Hope 2009; Charman 2010).

In the remainder of this paper we consider the way proponents of fracking discursively frame water through a neoliberal environments framework (Heynen et al. 2007), and how this framing factors into stakeholders’ decision-making process. We argue that multi-scalar, pro-fracking narratives serve to obfuscate the drilling process and normalize impacts on the hydro-social cycle. This largely occurs through a discursive framing of natural gas as a green fossil fuel, a solution for national resource independence and domestic energy needs, and a generator of local economic growth. Local social and ecological resources (i.e. community, sense of place, water as a recreational source) are situated within this scenario as mere factors in a broader marketplace of costs and benefits. In other words, the risks to water are perhaps a cost, but can be outweighed by the benefits created by the industrial extraction process. Thus, following this logic, the values of water quantity and quality, and by extension stakeholder concerns for water, are shifted to a fully economized benefit-cost analysis. This is also a shift away from a resource that embodies ecological, cultural, and other non-economic values (Fletcher 2010, 176), and whereby locals must sacrifice local resources for the greater good (Scott 2010).”

This paper considers the energy-water nexus by building on the growing body of literature regarding neoliberal environments (Heynen et al. 2007; Castree 2010). A neoliberal environments framework aids in understanding the economic logic that legitimizes the impacts of fracking on local water resources. Proponents of neoliberal strategies suggest that environmental protection would best occur through market mechanisms, or the amalgamation of stakeholders motivated to action on individual economic needs (rather than, for example, community or non-economic needs) and making decisions based on a range of personal costs and benefits. From the point of view of fracking proponents, costs and benefits are defined through global energy markets that play out at the local scale. State and federal regulatory agencies are an anathema, adding extra and unnecessary barriers to a properly functioning energy market, and therefore any regulation should be limited or eradicated. Assuming that this strategy operates as expected, the market will signal consumer behavior and desires. Thus, if consumers are concerned with energy and/or environmental resources, this will be appropriately reflected by a fully economized hydro-social cycle. The ability to influence actor perceptions of fracking, and thus decision making, is crucial. It is for this reason that we turn our attention to pro-fracking discourses.

The main arguments for fracking shale gas are synergistic and idealize natural gas as the perfect bridge fuel: it generates a “green” low carbon-emitting fossil fuel; it is a domestic energy source that can replace foreign oil; it can supply growing energy demands; and it can spur local economic development. Inherent in these arguments is an effort to heavily influence the discursive meaning of water with the intention of dominating the discourse around the value of fracking to local communities. Popke (2011) suggests that one of neoliberalism's defining features, “has been to instill an increasingly narrow and individualized sense of responsibility and ethical agency” (243). Stakeholders are compelled to internalize these strategies through a range of discursive structures (e.g., pressure from family members and neighbors, common pool and mineral rights regulations, patriotic discourse concerning domestic energy development, risk of loss of potential income). In turn, as long as state and federal regulatory influence is minimized, stakeholders will “self-regulate their behavior in ways consistent” with the goals of oil and gas firms who seek to extract underlying resources at virtually any social and ecological cost (Fletcher 2010, 175). Further, opponents of fracking are discursively positioned as irrational and unwilling to absorb necessary costs that would benefit their neighbors and the nation as a whole. Along these lines, water needs to be defined only in economic terms, because if it were considered a life giving, human/non-human right, it would then no longer be quantifiable in a global energy market.

A political ecology perspective insists on tracing the “socially produced character” of such hydro-social configurations and the inequitable conditions that often emerge from them (Swyngedouw 2009, 58). In other words, we suggest that an analysis of fracking should include an investigation into the neoliberal-politicized strategies that various stakeholders and production firms use to define environmental resources, and the ways these efforts often benefit some, despite deleterious impacts on others and the places they live. For the remainder of this paper, we will focus on the ways multi-scalar, neoliberal politics define the meaning and value of water resources with the underlying goal of motivating stakeholders to allow drilling within Pennsylvania's Northern Tier of the Marcellus Shale. This region should be considered a proxy for other contexts where similar debates play out in familiar ways. We follow this section by discussing the way the hydro-social cycle is (re)defined in terms of a neoliberal environment, obfuscating understanding and normalizing impacts. We then conclude this article with a case for the importance of interpreting multi-scalar, pro-fracking arguments in the context of shale gas plays.

Pennsylvania's Northern Tier of the Marcellus Shale Gas Play

The Pennsylvania counties of Tioga, Bradford, and Susquehanna include some of the most rural and scenic portions of the state. The region – colloquially referred to as Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains – is notable for its gently rolling mountains and valleys, low population densities, abundant natural resources, and pastoral farms. Today, these counties are also a hotbed of unconventional natural gas production because of their location above a large portion of the Marcellus Shale gas play. Currently there are more than 400 active wells across the three counties, which also account for 27 percent of the state's gas well permits issued for Marcellus Shale Development (from 2007–2010).

The Marcellus Shale encompasses roughly 54,000 miles across portions of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, and Virginia. The deposit has been estimated to contain 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (making it the most productive natural gas strata in the U.S.), and has become an important target for exploration, drilling, and production firms (Engelder and Lash 2008). Although the geography of the Marcellus Shale is widespread, the political ecology of each region is unique. For example, the state of New York has continued their moratorium on fracking and large-scale gas development due to concerns about drinking water, while Pennsylvania has maintained large-scale development in the same shale gas play.

Historically, Pennsylvania's northeastern tier was a large forestry production node, where timber was harvested in remote valleys and floated down the Susquehanna River to access productive markets in Williamsport, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg (coal was abundant farther south in the state, and thus large-scale industrial production largely bypassed this region). Today, forestry products remain part of the region's economic output, although less so than in the past. As a result, many residents take advantage of the resource-rich landscape to diversify their livelihoods. Pennsylvania's Scenic Route 6 runs east-to-west through the counties, and tourists often visit bed and breakfasts, state parks, and enjoy abundant hunting and fishing opportunities. There are also several large acreage agricultural operations, with primary products that include dairy, corn, and small-scale vegetable crops. Nonetheless, this region remains one of the poorest in the state with a large number of rural, elderly, and marginal income residents.

Pennsylvania also has a vast supply of clean and accessible water resources. Indeed, Pennsylvania has more miles of streams as a proportion of area than almost every other state in the contiguous U.S. (Fleeger 1999). Water is clearly an important component of the fracking process and the nation's broader energy agenda (Beck 2010). With the confluence of abundant resources, demographics, as well as antiquated oil and gas production regulations at the state level where industrial development is generally favored over environmental protection, a boom in natural gas extraction seemed prime to occur (particularly as the technology has existed for decades, and booms were occurring in states such as Texas, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado by the late 1990s to early 2000s). However, it took the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (Public Law No: 109–58) to give the extra push needed to stimulate Pennsylvania's natural gas boom.

In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act (Public Law No: 109–58), in which fracking was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act (except in the case of using diesel fuel as a fracking fluid). Often referred to as the “Halliburton Loophole,” this exemption dramatically changed the extraction landscape in northeastern PA. The loophole was predicated on the basis of an Environmental Protection Agency report (USEPA 2004) finding that there was little to no risk of groundwater contamination from the process of fracking in coal bed methane extraction of natural gas. The only restriction was for diesel used as an additive to fracking fluid, which posed enough of a risk to underground sources of drinking water that it was specifically addressed. By this time, hydraulic fracturing for unconventional gas deposits was booming in rural portions of other states (listed above). These states, however, were also beginning to intensely scrutinize and regulate the use and reporting of additives in fracking fluids, land use and reclamation at natural gas production sites, and flowback wastewater disposal (see Farquhar 2010; Finley 2011).

As production slowed in other states, around 2005, speculators and energy companies began to approach landowners in the Marcellus region of Pennsylvania about the potential of leasing their property for natural gas development. Through the early 2000s, much of the natural gas harvested in PA was produced conventionally, with the drilling of a simple vertical well from which the resource flowed passively. In 2000, for the U.S. as a whole, a negligible percentage of natural gas (<1 percent) was produced through the use of fracking. By 2008, studies and pilot wells in the state indicated that the Marcellus Shale would be highly productive in terms of both quantity and quality of gas produced from fracking (Esch 2008). By 2009, the convergence of high volume, slickwater hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling contributed to a boom in natural gas development in both western and northern portions of Pennsylvania. By 2009 almost 25 percent of all natural gas produced in the U.S. occurred through fracking, reflecting the rapidity with which this extraction method has influenced natural gas production. Needless to say, this has made shale gas plays – which as recently as 2000 were inaccessible and/or uneconomic – now harvestable and extremely profitable.

Neoliberal Environments

Despite the fact that industrial natural gas development is initiated at the national and global scales, land use decision-making and impacts are felt at the local scale where rural stakeholders (who often utilize diverse, resource-based livelihood strategies) must compete for the same land and water resources as fossil fuel developers. This brings into focus why oil and gas firms aggressively try to control the discourse about the hydro-social cycle. Importantly, desires to expand local economic growth opportunities are ever-present, and landowners are often motivated to lease their property to extraction firms based on complex, multi-scalar arguments that center on this possibility. This has created strong tensions between proponents and opponents, particularly because water is both abundant in northeastern PA and is argued to be just another economic input in the broader picture. This is in opposition to water as a multi-faceted, multi-value resource that can be readily degraded, perhaps irrevocably in the natural gas industrial production process.

Harvey (2005) has broadly posited that neoliberal strategies are enacted to ensure the consolidation of capital into specific hands, and Bakker (2010) suggests that water is a ‘final frontier’ for capitalism. While we agree, this does not sufficiently explain why the multi-scalar, pro-fracking arguments are effective. We know, for example, that the arguments are intellectually weak: natural gas extraction is not “green” (Howarth et al. 2011); shale gas will not likely get the nation “off” of foreign oil (Tyndall Centre 2011); fracking poses serious risks to water quality and is in need of stronger regulations (Parfitt 2010; Jackson et al. 2011). Also the process is driven by specific interests (e.g., America's Natural Gas Alliance). We suggest, then, the issue is less about the argument, and more about the way the hydro-social cycle is framed in support of fracking.

Fletcher (2010) suggests that neoliberalism is a “general strategy of governing human action” (171), or a way of ‘conducting conduct’ (Foucault 2008; Fletcher 2010, 173). In other words, neoliberalism is not just an argument, but also a strategy for reworking societies’ perception of, and relationship to, the non-human world (McCarthy and Prudham 2004; Heynen et al. 2007). Since, at the outset, environmental concerns are often seen in opposition to development, fracking proponents must co-opt, define, and control the meaning of environmental resources. This first means redefining the value of water as an economic input, so that its degradation makes sense in a broader benefit/cost framework. Thus the hydro-social cycle is less a relationship between people and water, but rather a commodity that can be monetized for global markets (Finewood and Porter 2010). One can observe the effectiveness of such a practice through the sacrifices that individuals are expected to make for their – and the nation's – economic future. In other words, people must exchange their noneconomic resources for economic resources, as if they were simply interchangeable.

In this scenario, firms are the legitimate source of knowledge and information. Neoliberal approaches to environmental governance suggest “rolling back” environmental regulations (Peck and Tickell 2002), tacitly celebrating the knowledge and experience of private industry. In this case, with a lack of funding for regulatory agencies and a general disdain for environmental concerns when framed as opposing economic development, a knowledge vacuum is created for oil and gas firms to fill. Firms become the de facto expertise on the environmental impacts of fracking as well as the expert counterpoint to anti-fracking voices. In addition, as the fracking process happens up to a mile under the surface of the ground, in largely inaccessible and rural areas, and often on private property, the full spatial and temporal impacts of the process occur largely out-of-sight, leaving stakeholders very few alternatives but to seek information from oil and gas firms.

Finally, as the neoliberalization of the hydro-social cycle becomes taken-for-granted, or common sense, those who speak up for water resources as a human/non-human right are increasingly marginalized. The refrain of environmentalists as “anti-jobs,”“being out of touch with reality,” and/or “prioritizing nature over people” has become relatively common trope in U.S. society. Even those who may not consider themselves environmentalists, but seek to advocate for regional environmental resources, are marginalized within the broader debate. Further, not only does this tactic set the discursive stage for a rational group of economically minded people versus irrational environmentalists (i.e., economy versus the environment), but it also uses environmental perception as an arena for political and economic projects (Heynen et al. 2007, 12). Thus the legitimacy of a neoliberal environment discourse is reinforced while delegitimizing alternatives.


Thus far we have argued that multi-scale neoliberal discourses do more than obfuscate comprehensive understandings of the impacts of fracking on water resources. They also create a way of conducting conduct that normalizes the impacts fracking has on water resources. In this vein of thinking, Castree (2003) has asked, why should we care about the capitalization of nature? We contend that the socio-environmental risks of fracking are potentially high and it is largely rural communities who are vulnerable to these risks. At the same time, these communities must make land use decisions based on incomplete and competing forms of knowledge. One or our goals is to bring attention to the potential impacts of fracking and to develop a better understanding of the ways stakeholders perceive costs and benefits in order to make land use decisions.

But more broadly, we are interested in contributing to a context-specific analysis of the ways neoliberalism is (re)defining the relationships between people and the non-human world. As market approaches to environmental regulation become a more accepted, and perhaps a dominant part of governance strategy (See Anderson and Leal 2001), places like northeastern PA are, “written off for environmental destruction in the name of a higher purpose, such as the national interest” (Scott 2010, 31). These “sacrifice zones” assume an ecological disconnect between people and their environment, normalizing environmental degradation in some places while protecting others, and also assume no alternative uses of land or energy resources. This can be viewed as a form of remote environmental exploitation and brutality where the scalar issues make these sacrifice zones almost invisible to the larger nation and world. We feel that these struggles to (re)define the nature/society relationship is about the power to ensure capital flows into specific hands, which will likely result in greater costs to other people and their environments. Formally investigating and deconstructing pro-fracking discourses is part of an ongoing project to come to terms with the realities involved with the transformation of the hydro-social cycle and with the water-energy nexus, and to strive for a more equitable future.


We would like to thank Yan Lin, Beth Kinne, and Dustin Pollard for helping us with regional guidance, knowledge, and research assistance. Also, our gratitude goes out to the anonymous group of stakeholders who provided perspective and concerns about changes within their communities.

Author Bios and Contact Information

Michael H. Finewood is an Assistant Professor of Sustainability at Chatham University's School of Sustainability and the Environment in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His research interests include environmental health, economic development, and environmental justice with a focus on the political ecology of the global north. In addition to natural gas research in Pennsylvania and New York, he has worked on issues related to sustainability, amenity migration, and sea level rise in South Carolina and Virginia. He can be reached at

Laura J. Stroup is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at St. Michael's College in Colchester, VT. Her specializations include water resources and their management in the U.S., physical geography, and environmental policy. Previous research projects examined the ways community greenways can be used as tools for students to better understand human-environment interactions and how diverse water managers and stakeholders across the U.S. adapt their water management practices to climate variability and change. She can be reached at