Hydraulic fracturing has rapidly emerged as a game changing technology for extracting oil and gas from unconventional shale formations. Wells developed with this technology necessitate only a small footprint, and can therefore be sited virtually anywhere, including in close proximity to homes and civic areas. With its ascendance, critics of the technology have emphasized the potential environmental and health impacts in the vicinity of wells, while proponents have heralded it is as a crucial technology for boosting local economies and attaining energy independence. As such, many view hydraulic fracturing is a Faustian bargain, providing much needed economic succor, while leaving in its wake a host of hazards and uncertainties.

In this study, we examined all hydraulically fractured wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Formation, one of the main fracking regions in the United States. Pennsylvania is notable for its hands-off regulatory approach to drilling, and for a paucity of social movements that protest fracking activity. Our dataset encompasses some 16,000 unconventional wells throughout the state, examining their evolution through the phases of permitting, drilling and production. Our analysis spans the years 2004-2014 – from the onset of the fracking boom to the present. We associated each well to one of the roughly 1,300 municipalities atop the shale. For each municipality, we collected a host of human capital variables (such as wealth, race and education), predictors of social cohesion (such as tenure in the community, religious adherence, and family size), as well as geological and demographic controls. Using this dataset, we examined which community variables affected how organizations made siting decisions in a contested context characterized by low regulatory oversight and low social mobilization.

We found that although many wells were sited within vulnerable communities, a similar number of wells were sited within prosperous communities. We subsequently conducted finer grained analyses in the two regions of Pennsylvania where drilling is particularly intense. We discovered that in municipalities in southwestern Pennsylvania with a higher percentage of non-whites and with a history of toxin-emitting facilities there was a greater incidence of unconventional well siting activity than in neighboring municipalities without these attributes. In contrast, municipalities in northeastern Pennsylvania that were more prosperous and more conservative also saw more activity than adjacent communities without these attributes. But when viewed holistically, we found that particular predictors do not have uniform effects across time and place. Instead, they appear to be contextually sensitive: siting decisions are nuanced and contingent on packages of attributes that make communities more or less attractive to organizations. Put simply, given a contentious activity like fracking, some communities might resist it, others might support it, and yet others might be indifferent. Organizations seeking to act in these communities appear to adapt their strategies of engagement accordingly.