Drillers Try Adjusting to Cultural Concerns

By Litvak, Anya | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), March 22, 2014 | Go to article overview

Drillers Try Adjusting to Cultural Concerns


Litvak, Anya, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The Gas and Preservation Partnership is not for absolutists. It's not for archaeologists that think any cultural resource should remain unbothered. And it's not for oil and gas companies that rely on a lack of regulation to drill though whatever cultural grounds may lie below.

"We believe that all cultural resources are valuable, but that some resources have more to teach us than others," the group's mission statement goes. "We believe that significance should be a factor in decisions about whether a site is preserved ... excavated ... or is destroyed."

The coalition of cultural preservation advocates and oil and gas firms, GAPP for short, held its inaugural summit at the Fairmont Hotel, Downtown, on Friday.

The group was formed in January 2013 and has spent the past year getting board members representative of its stakeholders -- it has four members from oil and gas companies including Marcellus operators Royal Dutch Shell and Southwestern Energy, and four professionals from cultural resource organizations.

The partnership is not unlike the Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale Development, a coalition of environmental groups and oil and gas companies working to come up with best practices.

The emphasis isn't on pushing regulation but on establishing a mutually beneficial set of rules that each side can observe and promote.

Why a voluntary effort? Because the consensus between archaeologists and industry representatives at the conference held that regulations are either nonexistent or not enforced.

"We're proactively getting ahead of the problem," said Marion Werkheiser, co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Cultural Heritage Partners and counsel to GAPP's board of directors.

That's not to say problems haven't surfaced already.

In Washington County alone, 63 known archaeological sites have been impacted by gas wells, according to research done by Jason Espino, a cultural resource manager with Michael Baker who completed his master's thesis on the subject in December. Mr. Espino estimated it's likely that another 150 sites that weren't known were similarly destroyed in the county.

When archaeologists raised concerns that shale gas drillers were destroying cultural resources at the 2012 annual meeting of the Society for American Archeology, the organization established a task force to plot how natural gas exploration intersects with historic sites.

Last January, the group published its findings. In the Marcellus, where only 5 percent of the footprint has been surveyed for cultural and historic resources, there are 1,951 identified sites, including 24 battlefield sites, 32 historic cemeteries, and 87 prehistoric ceremonial, burial, or mound sites.

The task force extrapolated that there might be close to 40,000 sites across the shale play in yet unsurveyed territory. In its report, the group also suggested that archaeologists need a " 'hook' that will encourage industry to want to conduct these surveys."

"Shale gas development is often conducted on private property, and in many states strong land owner right will make it difficult to change state laws to require cultural resource surveys," the report said.

"Possible 'hooks' may include positive PR that documents the positive results of such a survey and/or positive environmental action. Other options may include providing a Society for American Archaeology Award to one or more gas firms who are currently completing surveys in the absence of a state or federal requirement."

Besides Shell and Southwest Energy, representatives from Chevron Corp. and Range Resources, two of this region's most active drillers, attended the conference.

Al Vish, a former archaeologist, started working at Range Resources as a senior technical geological technician four years ago. His job wasn't to mind archaeological resources, but Mr. Vish saw how vulnerable it left a company to be ignorant of them. …

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