"Mind-blowing" -- that's what Linda Baker recalls thinking when she first learned that the Bureau of Land Management wanted to involve citizens in tracking the impacts of natural gas drilling on the Pinedale Anticline.
"I was so impressed that the BLM really wanted to hear from the community that would be most affected," says the soft-spoken Baker, a petite, athletic woman who watchdogs the oil and gas industry from an office above the Stockman's restaurant and bar in downtown Pinedale, Wyo. "That's when I decided that I wanted to participate."
It was 2000, and the BLM had just opened the Anticline -- a sagebrush-covered spine of land in western Wyoming -- to 700 gas wells. No one knew how drilling would affect the area's abundant wildlife and other natural resources, so the agency planned to monitor environmental impacts, and make "mid-course corrections" if necessary -- a practice known as adaptive environmental management.
That's where the citizens' advisory team -- known as the Pinedale Anticline Working Group (PAWG) -- came in. Composed of drillers, ranchers, conservationists and local government officials, the group would oversee monitoring, make recommendations to the BLM and disclose results to the community.
But eight years later, the working group represents, for many, a broken promise. It has hemorrhaged citizen experts, bogged down in litigation and bureaucratic red tape, and failed to function for extended periods. Meanwhile, the BLM has allowed drilling to continue full throttle despite declining wildlife and unprecedented air pollution. This September, the agency signed a new plan to allow 4,400 more wells on 600 wellpads and eliminate most seasonal protections for wildlife.
"We were told when I was there, ‘The customers are the companies,' " says Steven Belinda, a former BLM employee who served as a liaison to the working group's wildlife subcommittee. The BLM's PAWG simply "kept everyone dancing while industry got everything it wanted out in the field."
A company consultant says that PAWG participants expected more authority than the group was allowed. Conservationists, however, say the BLM disregarded citizen input, and they blame much of the trouble on an industry lawsuit that left the group playing catch-up.
"The PAWG process on the face of it was not an honest effort," says Rollin Sparrowe, a participant in one of the subcommittees. "I think it was doomed to failure from the beginning."
When the BLM first approved the Anticline gas field, it ushered in a new era of drilling. The area holds more than 21 trillion cubic feet of natural gas -- enough to heat 12.5 million homes for 20 years -- trapped in tiny pockets of nearly impermeable rock. A combination of new technology and high gas prices made it profitable to go after these reserves. But tapping them meant developing a much denser network of wells, roads and pipelines across the Anticline's 200,000 acres of rolling sagebrush -- crucial seasonal range and forage for thousands of migratory mule deer and pronghorn as well as nesting and breeding habitat for sage grouse.
Because of all the uncertainties involved, the BLM suggested that the working group oversee the process in exchange for the agency gaining more flexibility to manage on the fly. The group, in turn, divvied up its responsibilities for monitoring and mitigation plans to subcommittees on wildlife, water and air quality, transportation, cultural resources and reclamation.