Citizen oversight fizzles in Wyoming gas patch

 

The Pinedale Anticline gas field is a striking spot to visit. Even with the West-wide drilling slowdown caused by a recent bottoming out of natural gas prices, the place was hopping one hot evening last July as I explored its confusing web of roads during a reporting trip. Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be another drill rig humming away. Semis roared past, spitting gravel. Roughnecks in big diesel pickups threw curious glances my way as I trained a camera on this or that – a pronghorn settled next to a sign warning of exposure to carcinogenic emissions, the distant Wind River Range seen through a warren of pipes and valves. The Anticline is public land, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, but I felt like a trespasser.

This spot is one of the more sensitive areas to undergo such intensive natural gas development. Back in 2000, when the current activity got underway, it was renowned in particular for its mule deer herd, since it had some of the "best of the best" winter range for the animal. That, Emilene Ostlind wrote for us last year, was among the reasons that the agency "drafted a landmark adaptive management plan -- its first for oil and gas -- intended to help protect deer and other resources as drilling proceeded. In theory, it would allow managers to ‘learn while doing,’ adapting in response to on-the-ground impacts."

Part of that adaptive strategy was a citizen advisory committee called the Pinedale Anticline Working Group, or PAWG, "composed of drillers, ranchers, conservationists and local government officials (that) would oversee monitoring (of drilling impacts), make recommendations to the BLM and disclose results to the community." It was, HCN reporter Rebecca Huntington wrote in 2009, "mindblowing" for local environmental activist Linda Baker of the Upper Green River Alliance. "I was so impressed that the BLM really wanted to hear from the community that would be most affected," Baker told Huntington. But, as Huntington found, that promise was never borne out: "the working group … hemorrhaged citizen experts, bogged down in litigation and bureaucratic red tape, and failed to function for extended periods. Meanwhile, the BLM allowed drilling to continue full throttle despite declining wildlife and unprecedented air pollution."

And now, it looks as though the PAWG may blink out of existence altogether. During its last meeting in late October, the group voted 7-3 to cease operations for good and allow its charter to expire in 2014. The trouble, reports the Sublette Examiner, is that it had received only three nominations for seven seats that will be open in the coming year, leaving it without enough members for a quorum.

BLM spokeswoman Shelley Gregory says that given the extensive work demands of the group and the small population of both rural Sublette County, where the field is located, and the town of Pinedale, it’s not surprising that there hasn’t been more interest in participating. She also acknowledges that some past participants were frustrated by what they perceived to be a lack of responsiveness by the BLM to the group’s recommendations. "There was this expectation that the BLM would take these recommendations and accept them and run with them," Gregory says. "Sometimes the BLM could, and sometimes it could not.” The agency ended up carrying out working group ideas perhaps 60 percent of the time, she adds, including, for example, increasing monitoring of sensitive cultural sites and employing a law enforcement officer to keep an eye on them.

The recent tensions seem to trace back specifically to the BLM’s 2010 decision to essentially eliminate several task forces that had been looking at various issues for the PAWG – such as wildlife or air quality on the Anticline. Gregory says the subgroups were going beyond what the BLM had asked for or needed, and that in some cases had even violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act by giving recommendations directly to their BLM liaisons to be carried out, rather than submitting them first to the PAWG, which is chartered under the law, for review.

But the subgroups also offered a "very vital citizen engagement process," says current PAWG member Stephanie Kessler, a Wilderness Society staffer based in Lander who was involved in them as a member of the public before being appointed to the working group. Because they were issue-specific and met more frequently for shorter periods of time, they were better suited to involve regular people who were taking time to participate between jobs and other obligations, she says. And once they were gone, "public attendance cratered. … A lot of people feel that (the PAWG’s) demise was generated by BLM itself when it eliminated the task forces. … The structural change kind of emasculated the PAWG," she adds, because without the broader reach the task groups offered, PAWG members have had a much harder time staying abreast of the relevant issues at the same level of detail.

Kessler’s was one of the few votes against dissolving the group – primarily, she says, because there was no indication on the PAWG’s agenda that it might be voting to scrap itself. "I wanted to err on the side of plenty of public notice. … The PAWG went out with this little unnoticed kind of fizzle."

Gregory says that a statewide BLM citizen advisory group – the relatively new Resource Advisory Council, or RAC – should be able fill the same role with less redundancy and broader reach than the PAWG, and with better coordination on issues that cross jurisdictional boundaries, such as air and water quality, which are difficult to address piecemeal. She also notes that the BLM still has all sorts of public meetings and opportunities for input on its Anticline activities. But as both Ostlind and Huntington have pointed out in, the BLM doesn’t have a great track record of changing course on actual drilling in response to citizen input or new information, including the continued precipitous decline of the Anticline’s once flush mule deer herds.

Linda Baker is dubious that the RAC will be an improvement: It’s “too far removed from the local issues of the Pinedale Anticline to be of great use for natural resource issues here." The end result of the PAWG’s demise is that "the public will have to struggle to understand what is happening in one of the largest gas fields in the nation," Baker says. "I just think it’s a shame. And shame on BLM for dissolving what could have been a great example of public-government cooperation. I’m just so disappointed."

Sarah Gilman is HCN’s associate editor. Photos all taken by the author on the Pinedale Anticline.

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