There’s no real choice but to sign: neoliberalization and normalization of hydraulic fracturing on Pennsylvania farmland

  • Stephanie Malin


Finewood and Stroup (J Contemp Water Res Educ 147(1), 72–79, 2012) observe that as hydraulic fracturing for natural gas spreads across the USA, neoliberal ideologies normalize fracking’s potential dangers, including impacts to water and more general environmental quality. Theoretical observations like these must be tested empirically. I do so here, analyzing data from extensive fieldwork in Pennsylvania’s Bradford, Susquehanna, and Washington counties. Drawing on comparative mixed method data from fieldwork in northeastern Pennsylvania’s ‘Endless Mountains’ region and the Pittsburgh area, I compare how small-scale farmers perceive and sometimes enact elements of market-based, neoliberal rationality when assessing hydrofracking’s community, environmental, and economic outcomes. This paper explores why this matters sociologically, given small-scale farmers’ roles as land-use decision-makers, stewards of related natural resource development, and marginalized producers with limited access to market shares and subsidies. In counties like Bradford and Washington, impacts of fracking small-scale farmers have been under-studied. To address that gap, I examine impacts on farmers operating around natural gas development and within neoliberal economic structures. Analyzing extensive interview and ethnographic data, the following research questions are addressed: (1) Among small-scale farmers impacted by hydraulic fracturing, what evidence exists that neoliberal logic helps farmers normalize fracking? and (2) How does normalization interact with decisions to sign natural gas leases? My findings indicate that many farmers utilize neoliberal logic when assessing impacts of hydraulic fracturing and shale gas development, particularly as rapid energy development relates to their land-use decisions. Neoliberal normalization of hydraulic fracturing emerges most saliently regarding environmental outcomes and economic development. I connect this to small-scale farmers’ economic vulnerability and the limited agency in dictating land use near their farms.


Hydraulic fracturing Fracking Natural gas development Neoliberalization Neoliberalism Agriculture Energy development 



I would like to thank Brown University’s Center for Environmental Studies and Environmental Change Initiative for their support of this research. I would also like to thank my research assistants, Rebecca Rast and Rebecca Keane, for their tireless fieldwork and integral roles in this study. Finally, I would like to thank various reviewers for their time spent reading this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© AESS 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Environmental Studies and Superfund Research ProgramBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA

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