JACKSON — Relationships changed and unraveled. Promises proved empty. Attempts to massage scientific data bubbled up. Those elements all factored into the failure to develop a pronghorn-friendly gas field where Jackson Hole’s migratory animals winter, according to a scientific paper.
Scientists, who were bankrolled by industry with a $2 million tax-deductible donation to research the Pinedale Anticline’s pronghorn, say efforts to cooperatively conserve the population went awry because of power imbalances, changing relationships with and between agencies and industry, and a lack of transparency. The collaboration between the industry and conservation biologists largely fell apart a decade ago. Today the result is that pronghorn are increasingly avoiding infrastructure within and abandoning the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s largest natural gas field.
That’s a narrative presented by Wildlife Conservation Society social scientists and biologists Heidi Kretser, Jon Beckmann and Joel Berger, who detailed a retrospective account of a failed attempt at collaboration in a 2018 edition of the Journal of Environmental Management.
“When we started working in the Upper Green River Basin on energy-related effects, we noticed a number of distinctions between what industry had promised, and what really occurred,” Berger said in an interview. “Shell, in particular, was very clear in arguing that, based on our scientific results, they would only develop in a way that would not be negative to pronghorn. That proved very far from the truth.”
For Beckmann a turning point was when Anticline developers Ultra, Shell and Questar started pushing back on what his fellow researchers were finding a couple of years into the industrialization of the vast sagebrush-covered mesa south of Pinedale.
“There was an attempt to alter some of the language in the reports,” Beckmann said. “It was definitely the first time that I recognized that there was going to be some contention here with language and statements and data and how data were being presented.”
The Wildlife Conservation Society scientists’ paper, which is written mostly as a narrative, suggests that missions of the for-profit corporations involved complicated negotiations and relations.
“Although the groups initially convened with a stated conservation motivation, the majority of the players had to balance multiple and often competing mandates such as economic, risk management and conservation,” the researchers wrote. “During this transition period with new individuals at the table, conservation seemed to be only a secondary or possibly tertiary motivation driving the participation.”
The planning process leading up to the drilling of the Anticline was billed as innovative, partly because the gas field development was to be adaptively managed in a way that resulted in industry-funded conservation if a population of a species was struggling. With pronghorn, for instance, a 15 percent population decline triggers “mitigation actions” under a 2008 supplemental environmental impact statement that governs the Anticline. That same planning process created a state and federal agency-occupied board that did — and still does — direct where mitigation funds go.
According to the Journal of Environmental Management paper the creation of that board caused communications to shift “dramatically.”
“Prior to the [Anticline] board, decisions about the data, payments and reports were made collectively at the annual meeting at which all players were present,” the study says. “Subsequently, the communication on these topics became closed and the linkages among some players remained strong, yet communications with others, namely Wildlife Conservation Society, were almost completely severed.”
Toward the tail end of the five-year research partnership, divisions grew so strong that communications nearly ceased and reports on how pronghorn were faring went unpublished. In the interim the two parties failed to come to terms on how to describe the data. When researchers wrote in a 2007 draft report that two of the GPS-tracked pronghorn were demonstrating a “complete avoidance” of high-intensity development in the Anticline and Jonah gas fields, the petroleum companies involved replied, “This section and its accompanying figures should be deleted.”
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One person who sat at the negotiating table on behalf of the gas industry disagreed with many of Berger and Beckmann’s conclusions.
“If you look at how the Anticline was developed, that was a direct response to both the BLM and the Game and Fish Department,” said Art Reese, a Cheyenne-based consultant. “As far as I was aware, the operators that were on the Pinedale Anticline Project area have done everything that the BLM has asked them to do.”
“I think that’s the definition of collaboration,” he said.
Changes in personnel was another stressor on the attempted collaboration, the paper contends. One individual who was a “critical player” from the petroleum industry left the collaboration, and there were exchanges in personnel between the public agencies overseeing and the energy companies involved in developing the Anticline.
“From our perspective the driving motivations arguably changed as individual participants changed,” the paper says. “For those representing petroleum companies, risk management or economic motivations appeared to supersede conservation motivations.”
A threefold combination of the changed relationships, changed legal directives and roles from the newly created Anticline board, and industry’s desire to modify the goals and objectives caused the collaboration to sputter and eventually tank.
“The combined effect of these three situations,” the papers says, “resulted in a breakdown of the synergy and open communication among actors, and resulted in a process where concerns of all participants were not represented during key points of the collaboration, industry attempted to alter the meaning of scientific results that could compromise production, and elements of agency capture seemed to influence some public agency decisions.”
Beckmann and Berger said they assembled the retrospective assessment so that industry and other scientists could learn from their missteps.
“One of the things that you see in the literature is that everybody wants to talk about collaborations of these types that were successful,” Beckmann said. “There’s a dearth of information on real-world engagements where there may be points of contention or cases where collaborations break down.”
Berger also desired to jot the failure down on paper for the benefit of future collaborations. Going into the Anticline work, he sought lessons learned from colleagues who had worked on the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster. They verbally described their experiences, but there was nothing written.
“I thought that there were broad insights that others could benefit from,” Berger said. “As conservation scientists we felt that transparency was really important as we move into the future.”