Photos from the Frontlines of Fracking
Photo: Martha Rial/Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

Photos from the Frontlines of Fracking

Activists and photojournalists collaborate to shed new light on the impact of natural gas extraction through data and art.
July 15, 2016, 3:41pm

Improvements in hydraulic fracturing, popularly known as fracking, made previously hard-to-extract natural gas economically viable.

Drill rigs sprang up across the Marcellus Formation, a shale deposit that lies beneath almost all of West Virginia and Pennsylvania as well as large swaths of Ohio and New York. Boosters trumpeted a cheap energy source that was cleaner than coal and created good-paying jobs; detractors warned of air and water pollution and the industrialization of rural America.


Photographer Brian Cohen watched gas-extraction operations springing up in the countryside surrounding his home of Pittsburgh.

"This is a historic story, particularly in Pennsylvania, certainly the biggest shift in the energy landscape in Pennsylvania in multiple generations," Cohen said in an email. "It is a story where you can see very clearly how the implementation of policy affects the lives of real people, regardless of whether you think it is for better or for worse."

Cohen formed the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project (MSDP) in 2011 with local photographers Lynn Johnson, Scott Goldsmith and Martha Rial, as well as Philadelphia-based Noah Addis and New Yorker Nina Berman, to investigate the contentious drilling practice. After touring in 2012, the group is back with a new member, documentary filmmaker and multimedia producer Joe Seamans, and another exhibition, expanding into Ohio and West Virginia and the geological neighbor of Marcellus, the Utica Shale.

With the help of environmental advocacy nonprofit FracTracker Alliance, the resulting work has become an exhibition of 80 prints, a screen for videos shot by Berman, three map visualizations and two multimedia presentations.

Marcellus Shale Documentary Project: An Expanded View runs through the end of the month at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and Cohen is optimistic that, just as it did last time, the exhibition will tour in the near future.

MarkWest Bluestone cryogenic gas processing plant just outside of Evans City, Butler County, Pennsylvania. The plant has completely transformed the rural site into a major industrial complex. Cohen calculated it runs a third of a mile along the valley floor. Photo: Brian Cohen/Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

The Fuller well pad is one of a network of deep gas wells being developed in Noble County, Ohio. There is a long history of extraction here, from strip mining for coal to shallow gas wells, but unconventional drilling ("fracking") is relatively new. Photo: Brian Cohen/Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

Carrie Hahn works with residents who have been harmed by the industrialization of their rural communities. She recently realized that this frustrating and exhausting pursuit will be a long term battle. Photo: Lynn Johnson/Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

Increasingly, there is the threat of more gas industry presence next to Amish farms where families live a traditional life without modern intrusions. Photo: Lynn Johnson/Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

An aerial view of the rail spur built to accommodate increased production at MarkWest's Bluestone natural gas processing plant near Evans City, PA. Photo: Martha Rial/Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

Frac sand is transferred from rail car to truck at the TransFlo Depot in Pittsburgh's Hazelwood neighborhood. Local governments and residents are dealing with road damage, safety, noise and dust increased truck traffic due to the natural gas boom in Western Pennsylvania. (Martha Rial/Marcellus Shale Documentary Project)

Emissions seen through a FLIR camera (Forward Looking InfraRed devices visualize infrared radiation instead of visible light, also referred to as thermal imaging) photographed with a digital camera, coming from a vent near the Costello Well Pad Dimock, PA, 2014. Photo: Nina Berman/Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

This composite is made of 1,764 images compiled from a set of 5,121 images taken by Hop Bottom resident Frank Finan with a Bushnell wildlife camera over 91 hours from April 26, 2013 through April 30, 2013. The images show the volume of truck traffic that passed in front of Rebecca Roter's home during the operation of a nearby shale gas well pad. Brooklyn, PA. The drilling rig image was taken in Rome, PA by Nina Berman, 2011. Image: Nina Berman/Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

View of a drilling rig at PDC Energy's Cole well pad in Salesville, Ohio on October 2, 2014. Wells are being drilled across the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to extract gas from the Marcellus and Utica Shale, rock formations that extend throughout much of the Appalachian Basin. Gas companies are using a technique known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking", which involves pumping fluid into wells at high pressure in order to fracture the rock formation and release the gas. Photo: Noah Addis/Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

View of the FirstEnergy R.E. Burger power plant in Shadyside, Ohio on January 31, 2016. The plant's coal-fired boilers were taken off line in 2011 and the facility was completely closed in 2015. The site is being considered for a new ethane cracker plant. The processing plant would take ethane from the Utica and Marcellus Shale formations and convert it into ethylene, which is used in the petrochemical industry. Photo: Noah Addis/Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

Preparing to frack after drilling; a flowback pond can be seen on the right. Butler County PA, winter 2014. Photo: Scott Goldsmith/Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

Bus of anti-fracking activists traveling to the inauguration of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf in January, 2015. Photo: Scott Goldsmith/Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

Natural gas prices have taken a nosedive in the past two years, slowing what had been a major boom economy in America. But there are still almost 10,000 well leases in Pennsylvania alone, and the rigs keep drilling, the trucks keep hauling, and the trains keep rolling.