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for people who care about the West

Stuck in the PAWGmire

How the BLM failed Pinedale

 

"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.

But before the citizen groups could get off the ground, Yates Petroleum Corp., a New Mexico-based operator drilling on the Anticline, sued the U.S. Department of Interior over the BLM's decision to impose mitigation measures on drilling if necessary. The lawsuit also argued that the citizens' group violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA, which sets rules for federal advisory committees in order to keep their advice open and accessible to the public. The government responded by ordering the Pinedale group and its subcommittees to cease work. Energy companies, meanwhile, continued drilling. 

According to Gene George, a Yates consultant who participated in PAWG subcommittees from 2000 to 2007, the company wanted to make sure that the advisory group did not override the government's legal decision-making authority. "They jumped off immediately and decided they would also start advising on the (National Environmental Policy Act) process and all sorts of other things and that's where it kind of got astray," George says.

Although a U.S. District Court for Wyoming dismissed Yates' complaint, the BLM decided that the Pinedale group needed to be chartered under FACA anyway. The agency took four years to resolve the suit, write a charter and appoint new members. Under FACA, the Interior secretary must approve those new members -- a lengthy process that still hinders the group today.

By the time the new PAWG convened in 2004, hundreds of wells had been drilled. The Bush administration told the working group that it could not pick up where it left off, but would have to start over, writing new monitoring plans.

Meanwhile, the BLM had started working on a proposal from Questar Corporation, an Anticline operator, to lift seasonal restrictions on drilling in crucial mule deer winter range. Although the agency asked for input, PAWG members say what it really wanted was a rubber stamp of approval. The group's wildlife subcommittee had neither the time nor the baseline monitoring data to properly evaluate the proposal.

The Yates lawsuit wasn't entirely to blame for the problems, says Dennis Stenger, who inherited the beleaguered group in 2006 when he took over as Pinedale BLM field manager. It was also a struggle for the agency to find volunteers willing to commit to the time-intensive working group. "You couldn't even get a quorum there in the end," he says.

But critics say the BLM drove away volunteers by ignoring their advice. For example, PAWG member Kirby Hedrick famously quit after concluding that the BLM had no interest in listening to him. A former vice president of production for Phillips Petroleum and a U.S. Department of Defense consultant, Hedrick had urged the BLM to limit habitat disruption by requiring that more wells be drilled directionally from fewer pads. But he got little response.

"This is one of the smartest groups of people I have ever seen working together. If the BLM doesn't listen to the advice of this group, they are making a big mistake," Hedrick said before he walked out of his last meeting in August 2005. "I get the impression the BLM wished this group would go away." (Hedrick declined to comment for this article.)

Belinda, who worked for the agency at the time, backs up Hedrick's critique. "I was in numerous (BLM) meetings where people said, ‘We wish this (the PAWG) would just go away,' " says Belinda, who ultimately quit in frustration and went to work for a conservation group.

Stenger, who is now retired, says the group's legal charter limited its authority. The group was allowed to comment only on decisions outlined in the 2000 plan, not on the newer proposals under consideration by the time it reconvened. BLM officials were careful to consider how their interpretation of the charter might set a precedent  -- opening the door to special interests -- for other field offices, Stenger says.

"Out of this PAWG, you have certain people, they have a goal and there's no wavering from that goal," he explains. "Sometimes that gets in the way of what should actually be done on the ground."

Bob Barrett, an avid sportsman who represented the "public at-large" on the group, now wishes he'd followed Hedrick's lead. "I could have made a grand exit and probably should have as Kirby did," he says. But he stayed on to try to get some protections in place for wildlife.

In particular, he supported the work of the Wildlife Task Group, which Rollin Sparrowe had been asked to lead when the PAWG reconvened in 2004. Sparrowe had 22 years of experience working as a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with jobs ranging from research scientist to deputy assistant director for wildlife and refuges.

When his group got to work, it discovered that the BLM had yet to review data collected by industry-funded researchers to see what impact drilling was having on local wildlife. Given the group's late start, Sparrowe tried to make the most of the existing information. One study showed that drilling had displaced 46 percent of the nearly 6,000 mule deer wintering on the Anticline. So the task group proposed that the BLM maintain current deer populations and forbid development on what undisturbed winter habitat remained.

But despite unanimous agreement between PAWG members, including an oil and gas industry representative, Stenger rejected the recommendations. He offered a counter-proposal to maintain "the viability of the herd," which would allow for further declines in deer numbers. Stenger says now that the working group overlooked the other factors besides drilling that can affect deer numbers, such as drought, severe winters and hunting.

When the BLM chose to ignore science that clearly showed energy development was hurting deer, Sparrowe says, it seemed there was no point in working on protections for sage grouse and other species on which drilling's impacts were still murky. So the group disbanded for more than two years, before reconstituting this March.

Other subcommittees also foundered. Linda Baker served on the air-quality group, which found that the BLM did not monitor nitrogen oxides for four years despite committing in 2000 to track the pollutant, which contributes to ozone. The agency has since begun monitoring again. Last winter, the town of Pinedale -- which still doesn't have a single traffic stoplight -- had its first human health warnings for air pollution that exceeds federal standards.

But some subcommittees have made progress. The BLM refined and expanded its water-quality monitoring based on that group's input, George says. And the water-quality group notified the public in August of the contamination of a stock well. Likewise, the agency hired additional archaeological staff and a law enforcement officer to help protect cultural resources. The new drilling decision includes protections for the historic Lander Trail, a spur of the Oregon Trail.

For conservationists like Sparrowe, who now works with the Theodore Roosevelt Conserva-tion Partnership, of which he's a founding member, those successes are not enough. In June, the wildlife advocacy group filed suit against the BLM, saying the agency failed to follow through on its commitment to change management of the gas field despite clear evidence that drilling was harming area wildlife. The group recently amended the complaint to challenge the BLM's latest expansion plan.

Although Pinedale Town Councilor Nylla Kunard echoes those complaints, she's still a PAWG member and wants to see the group salvaged. She's optimistic about the current BLM field manager, Chuck Otto, who took the position just last year. "I just felt like at least he was listening," she says.

Despite the eight years of turmoil, Otto says the group still plays a vital role as a venue for citizens to communicate with the BLM. He promises to more actively forward the group's concerns to decision makers.

Sparrowe doesn't think Otto can make a difference. "Many BLM employees tried to do what they knew was the right thing to do," he says. "According to those employees, they were often overruled from either Cheyenne or Washington."

In any case, Otto's actions will be dictated by the BLM's plan to expand drilling on the Anticline. That document resets the baseline for mule deer and sage grouse at the diminished 2006 levels and allows further declines to occur before triggering changes to drilling operations. The decision also reduces the role of the Pinedale group by following the example of the neighboring Jonah gas field. Under the new plan, drilling companies have promised to pay $7,500 per well into a wildlife mitigation fund. A new group -- made up of government agency representatives -- will decide how that money gets spent to offset impacts to wildlife. The BLM, meanwhile, will evaluate the Pinedale group annually -- instead of every two years -- to decide whether it should continue.  The choice will rest with the Obama administration. 

Former PAWG member Barrett, however, has given up. "I think they should just stick a stake through the heart of it and just be done with it," he says. "Why continue the charade?"