Marcellus Shale – The Cultural Landscape of Natural Gas in Pennsylvania

Shale drilling equipment intrudes upon the peaceful setting of this small historic cemetery near Towanda, Pa., October 2010. (Photo courtesy T. Murtha.)

By Timothy Murtha

Once quietly wild, much of rural Pennsylvania lies at the epicenter of a furious effort to extract a natural gas embedded in the Marcellus shale formation, a regional resource stretching into New York, Ohio, West Virginia, and Maryland.  Simply put, it is potentially the largest natural gas deposit in the United States and the second largest in the world.  The consequences for heritage and cultural resources within the mid-Atlantic region are thus significant.  Unfortunately these consequences are understudied, poorly understood, and overshadowed by an extremely polarizing debate between proponents of natural gas as a valuable economic and energy resource and those voicing environmental and health and safety concerns.

The two key technologies for accessing the deeply embedded gas are horizontal drilling, a directional drilling technology that allows angled access to deposits, and hydraulic fracturing, in which pressurized fluid is injected into a shale deposit in order to release the embedded natural gas.  They had been refined on similar shale deposits in Louisiana and Texas in the last decade, but the Marcellus deposit is substantially larger, efforts at extraction noticeably more intensive, and the cultural and political context far more complex than in those states.  In this brief essay I don’t aim to highlight the benefits or drawbacks of Marcellus activity in general, but to start a dialogue about the direct and indirect impacts of the gas activity on heritage and cultural resources.  Whether or not the drilling should occur or what taxes and fees, if any, should be levied are issues that need to be addressed regionally through the democratic process.  The discussion here is relevant to those broader questions, but more importantly provides an opportunity for communities and heritage leaders to open discussions about how they might plan regionally to protect and preserve local resources.  Perhaps too a clearer understanding of the consequences of gas extraction on heritage resources can lead to mechanisms whereby industry can be encouraged to partner with local landowners, local government, and state agencies in this endeavor.  Introducing these issues now from the perspective of Pennsylvania could allow neighboring states like New York and West Virginia to better prepare for future drilling.

Brief Background on the Deposit

Map of the Marcellus shale formation. (Drawn by T. Murtha, with data from the National Atlas of the United States and the United States Geological Survey. )

The Marcellus deposit covers roughly 65% of Pennsylvania’s land area.  The deposit ranges in depth from the surface where it crops out in Central Pennsylvania to nine thousand feet in the northeastern and southwestern parts of the state and in thickness between two thousand and ten thousand feet [1].  Estimates vary widely, but the shale could contain anywhere from fifty to five hundred trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas [2]. It is a unique domestic fuel resource in close proximity to large eastern urban markets that will provide gas for generating electricity, fueling transportation and satisfying domestic consumption needs (e.g., heating).

Presently, more than fifty-two companies have invested billions of dollars in Pennsylvania for testing, leasing, drilling and production of the gas.  While any single well could produce gas for ten to twenty years, the resource is likely to be exploited for at least eighty to one hundred years.  Moreover, underlying the Marcellus is a potentially larger deposit, the Utica shale, with an even larger regional footprint.  All this considered, and given the available technology, demands for energy, and current policies, it’s fairly certain that that communities in the mid-Atlantic states will be experiencing horizontal drilling for natural gas for several decades.

Staging area for testing and well pad construction, Susquehanna County, Pa., March 2009. (Photo courtesy T. Murtha.)

Most of the recent debate surrounding Marcellus extraction revolves around the techniques and substances used to extract the gas.  Hydraulic fracturing is an expensive endeavor, and while the potential impacts of “fracing” on cultural resources and regional heritage are considerable, focusing solely on extraction underrepresents the full suite of activities required to bring a well under production. From testing to construction, production to extraction, each phase of the drilling process impacts the cultural landscape and its resources in different ways.  Taken together, there are at least three different scales of impact on a community’s heritage resources once drilling begins.  First are direct impacts in which activities related to well pad construction, site preparation, and drilling damage or alter historic and archaeological resources and heritage infrastructure, including the appearance of sites and landscapes.  Second are indirect impacts, the consequence of the substantial support activities of drilling and extraction, including water extraction and transport, pipeline development, and road repair and reconstruction.  These secondary activities also affect the aesthetic of particular places.  Third are down the line impacts that communities will manage decades after the first wells were drilled.  Simply, drilling activity today will introduce a series of future regulatory and preservation demands in the future on both regional heritage resources and the local and state organizations dedicated to preserving them.  We only need to review the legacy of coal in Pennsylvania for an historic parallel, as we continue to manage and try to improve brownfield sites and abandoned mining infrastructure.[3]

Direct damage to historic and archaeological sites is best evidenced by the Kirshner site, a Monongahela Indian village site in Westmoreland County,[4] fifty percent of which was destroyed by construction of the well pad and associated landform disturbances .  The damage to the site brought to light some key legislative and regulatory gaps, with little or no protection available for documented prehistoric and historic resources.  But beyond the Kirshner site, there are likely thousands of both known and currently unknown sites  that will be directly impacted by well construction.  The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Bureau for Historic Preservation has developed a best practices pamphlet to inform developers of the potential impact of development, and some companies have begun review of potential drilling sites for archaeological resources.  But such professional assessments are not mandatory and hence not widespread, and the pace and scale of drilling far exceeds the ability of state and local communities to prepare, study, protect, and preserve resources.  In addition to physical damage to sites, drilling severely compromises the aesthetic context of heritage resources throughout the region. Whether it is a small historic cemetery, a scenic vista, or a one-room schoolhouse, drilling on parcels in close proximity has a striking impact on their setting.

Heritage landscape near the Wyalusing Rock and Warriors Path overlook, Bradford County, Pa., March 2009. (Photo courtesy T. Murtha.)

In terms of indirect impact, once quiet country roads and walkable historic districts are now overwhelmed by heavy truck traffic.  The thousands of trucks transporting sand, water, personnel, and machinery to and from drilling sites have radically compromised historic bridges, districts, and roads.  Combined with seasonal freeze thaw, the impact of this traffic will require thousands of miles of road repairs, including substantial landform modifications that can potentially damage or destroy historic and archaeological resources.  But again, not all of the impacts are physical.  Whether walking down a historic main street, kayaking or fishing along the banks of a river, or motoring along country roads, the experience is transformed when the landscape has been altered.

Over time, Pennsylvania, like many other states rich with natural resources, has witnessed numerous boom and bust cycles of resource extraction.  Each cycle left a legacy of demands for heritage resource management.  In the decades after the current drilling has ceased, the demand for support from local, state and federal agencies will be significant, whether for rehabilitating roads and towns, reconstructing districts and landscapes, or managing brownfields or abandoned infrastructure.  Perhaps by recognizing these future demands now we can establish resources for local and regional leaders to develop long term plans for cultural and heritage resource management and preservation.

Debates about Marcellus commonly offer balance sheets, attempting to weigh the benefit of drilling, e.g. job creation, against risks, e.g. environmental damage.  Additionally, they develop firmly entrenched interest groups, for example positioning landowners against other community members or companies against conservation organizations.  But the current and future impact of resource extraction on communities is a potentially unifying issue. Fortunately, it is early enough in the process of exploration and exploitation to develop strategies that can help communities address current problems and prepare for changes to come.  And uniquely, there is an opportunity to bring to light some of the key day-to-day heritage and cultural resource management issues associated with drilling.  Other communities in the United States have established proactive measures to preserve and protect cultural resources, while recognizing the economic value of drilling for gas and oil.  Santa Fe County, New Mexico, for example, has established specific guidelines that prohibit well location and support activities within a measurable distance of identified resources.[5]  In so doing, the state has elevated cultural resources to the same regulatory status as protected natural resources.  By bringing the issues to light now, citizens, government, and industry can cooperate to make small interventions today in order to protect and preserve these resources for the decades that follow.


Timothy Murtha is associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Pennsylvania State University.  He is working with heritage leaders and community members in Bradford County, Pennsylvania to develop a geospatial planning and analysis tool that will enable organizations to identify critical cultural resources, including aesthetic landscapes, that are currently impacted or may be impacted by future drilling activities.  The tool builds on planning principles from other parts of the United States, including New Mexico, and will be available for additional counties in 2012.

[1] John A. Harper, “The Marcellus Shale—An Old “New” Gas Reservoir in Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Geology 38:1 (2008): 2 – 13.

[2]  Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, “Marcellus Shale,” (accessed October 24, 2011.

[3] For example, the Huber Breaker Preservation Society works to preserve this material remnant of coal mining in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania; see (accessed October 30, 2011.

[4] David Templeton, “State’s laws offer little shale drilling protection to archaeological sites,” Pittsburgh Post Gazette, May 8, 2011, (accessed October 24, 2011).

[5]  Santa Fe County Government, “Santa Fe County Oil and Gas Drilling Ordinance,” (accessed October 24, 2011).