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The University of Wyoming has long been a source of scientific information to guide public policy decisions in the state, including tough choices about natural resource management.
Increasingly, the university is being called upon to provide problem-solving expertise along with the science.
Two facilitators from UW’s Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources recently played a key role in helping a 26-member task force develop recommendations to reduce harmful ozone levels in the Upper Green River Basin. Steve Smutko, the Spicer Wyoming Excellence Chair in Environment and Natural Resources, and Elizabeth Spaulding, public policy facilitator, served as facilitators for the Upper Green River Basin Air Quality Citizens Advisory Task Force.
That group, which includes a diverse group of Sublette County residents, presented its recommendations to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality last month. The agency is now reviewing the recommendations, and DEQ Director John Corra says he believes it’s a strong list that could “make a big dent in the ozone problem.”
Sublette County and surrounding areas with intensive oil and gas development have seen higher-than-permissible ozone levels on some days in recent winters. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency lists the county as a “nonattainment” area. High ozone levels can cause or exacerbate health problems, especially with breathing.
Corra says he formed the advisory group after Sublette County citizens expressed an interest in being more involved in how his agency managed the ozone problem. The task force includes local residents, local government leaders, and representatives of the oil and gas industry, DEQ, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, public health groups and the governor’s office.
Corra turned to the Ruckelshaus Institute to facilitate the task force, having worked with Smutko in a similar process to develop a new strategy for coal-bed methane wastewater discharge permits in the Powder River Basin.
“Without a good process, convening a group of 26 people would not have succeeded – it’s too big and too diverse. We purposely chose people who were strong in their beliefs and ideals, articulate and actively involved in the area,” Corra says. “It really did require good facilitation. Both Steve and Elizabeth did a great job.”
Spaulding served as the primary facilitator, a job that included initial one-on-one discussions with the task force members, and leading a meeting to establish objectives and ground rules for the group. The Ruckelshaus Institute also provided a joint fact-finding scientific document – which included findings of UW researchers – about ozone formation and transportation in the Upper Green River Basin.
Some task force members wanted to consider factors beyond industrial activity that might contribute to the ozone problem, but the group decided to focus on the issue as an industry impact, Smutko says.
“We had to make sure that everybody, early on, understood the issues to be resolved,” he says.
While there was some distrust among the task force members initially, Smutko says all of them were willing to find a way to work together in an attempt to solve the problem. In fact, some participants felt they were ready to move quickly to produce a set of recommendations, but Smutko and Spaulding insisted on a methodical, slower course.
“In hindsight, I think they all appreciated the process,” Spaulding says.
Several task force members concur with that assessment.
“Many task force members were frustrated by them (Spaulding and Smutko) and the process – they wanted to move forward faster – but in the end the process they followed and demanded was successful,” says Bruce Pendery, staff attorney for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “I am sure most, if not all, of the task force is glad for their involvement – they were neutral gatekeepers.”
“I would like to believe that the task force could have succeeded without the facilitators and their process, and results may have come more quickly, but the road most likely would have been much rougher,” says Mike Shaffron of Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. “The facilitators definitely made a positive contribution to the effort. Although the process seemed cumbersome and slow-moving at first, it was highly effective in helping the group remain focused and move toward consensus.”
“The goals of the task force required a well-organized plan in place, effective leadership skills in mediation, and innovative teaching strategies to achieve the tasks at hand,” says Elain Crumpley, president of a local group called Citizens United for Responsible Energy Development. “I appreciate all that Steve and Elizabeth did to try to accomplish these tasks. They both worked very hard on this issue, and it was a continuous effort on their part to keep the task force moving along. Elizabeth was a task-master, but she had to be to keep us on track, to manage courteous exchange, and not let us get off into tangents.”
Another task force member, Sublette County Health Officer Dr. Thomas Johnston, put it simply, referring to Smutko and Spaulding: “This group would have floundered abysmally without their involvement.”
The task force brainstormed more than 60 possible ways to reduce ozone formation, but members determined that the final list of recommendations would include only measures upon which everyone agreed. The process to reach that consensus was tedious and time consuming, all participants agreed. But it was successful.
In the end, the group produced 10 recommendations. They include improving management of ozone “action days”; existing stationary emission sources; non-road mobile exploration and production emission sources; leak detection and repair; produced water and storage; monitoring and reporting; and stronger DEQ involvement in monitoring. In general, Smutko says, the recommendations call for use of best available technology to reduce emissions both from existing industrial operations and newly permitted operations in the area.
“We know this will reduce ozone,” he says. “We don’t know by how much.”
Corra says the recommendations are “all very good,” though they will require DEQ analysis to determine if they can be implemented.
“I think, for some people, the recommendations may go further than they’re comfortable with and, for some, they may not go far enough,” he says. “But, they all came together at the end. My expectations were more than met.”
After DEQ’s Air Quality Division concludes its analysis, the plan is to reconvene the task force – probably in early December – and have the agency report on how it will implement the recommendations, Corra says.
Corra is retiring at the end of October, but he says he’ll recommend his successor continue using the Ruckelshaus Institute to help resolve resource conflicts in Wyoming. Smutko’s and Spaulding’s backgrounds in natural resource issues, combined with their facilitator skills, constitute a tremendous resource for the state, says Corra, a member of the board of UW’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources.
“Seeking input from a diverse group to help us solve problems requires the services of a facilitator,” Corra says. “My sense is that the value of that service by the university is going to grow.”
Smutko, who was hired two years ago from North Carolina State University largely because of his background in collaborative process, says bringing parties together to solve problems is part of the Ruckelshaus Institute’s mission: to “communicate relevant research and promote collaborative decision making to support stakeholder-driven solutions to natural resource challenges.” The Ruckelshaus Institute is a division of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, an entity that “advances the understanding and resolution of complex environmental challenges through interdisciplinary research, outreach and education.”
“We want to see the university fill a role as not only a provider of information for decision-makers, but also to provide a neutral forum to enhance the capacity of the people of Wyoming to solve these sorts of problems,” Smutko says.