Earlier this year, Alex Austin, a second year MPA student, had the opportunity to intern with the World Wildlife Fund. Originally published in GSPIA Perspectives, the following is an excerpt from his reflection on his experience.
By Alex Austin
In addition to a full-time course load, I spent the Spring of 2016 working remotely as the Energy Intern for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Northern Great Plains office located in Bozeman, Montana. As the energy intern, I was tasked with researching the effects of oil development on split estate surface owners residing in the Williston Basin region of Western North Dakota. The Basin is home to the Bakken oil-bearing formation which stretches from the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan in Canada to parts of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. This area is typically referred to as the Badlands, biological diversity of this region is threatened by rapid oil development, wind energy development, invasive species, climate change, fragmentation, and dams. The appreciation for and importance of the Northern Great Plains grasslands is generally overlooked by North Americans which has led to the neglect of precious surface resources. As a result, unrestricted production of underlying natural resources thrives, causing damage to agricultural land and wildlife habitats in the region.
Working remotely for World Wildlife Fund provided a unique learning experience. Once hired, I had several meetings via phone or video chat with the Northern Great Plains program officer to discuss the mission of the unit and determine what project I would take responsibility of. Together, we determined that private property rights in oil development and asymmetric information between key actors in the state were critical topics that required further analysis. The goal of my research was to determine what rights split estate private landowners have in the state and how they compared to other oil producing states; what the state standard for reclamation is and how it compares to that of the US Bureau of Land Management; what enforcement mechanisms the state may utilize; what resources landowners in the state have access to; and what role WWF may play in increasing conservation of biodiversity and natural resources in the state.
Throughout my four-month internship, I had the opportunity to work closely with a program officer from one of the largest international conservation NGOs, interview key stakeholders, and develop a more thorough understanding of energy development in the United States. As a full-time student and single father to my twelve-year-old daughter, time management skills were extremely important to successfully meeting the deadlines and goals set forth by the program officer. Being an Energy and Environment student at GSPIA allowed me to apply portions of my research for WWF to class assignments which increased my overall efficiency as an intern and advanced my understanding of real world problems affecting people today.
At the end of my internship, I submitted a sixty-five-page paper that will be shared internally with World Wildlife Fund staff in both the Northern Great Plains office and the Fund’s headquarters in Washington D.C. Upon further review, the paper will be shared with regional partners to develop a solution for responding to rapid oil development and poor reclamation of private property. In addition to the required paper, my class term papers concerning oil pipelines and reclamation were submitted to the WWF program officer, exceeding original expectations.
I credit two GSPIA professors, Ilia Murtazashvili and Jeremy Weber, for equipping me with the skills necessary to obtain this position and successfully meeting the goals of the WWF NGP office. These two professors taught courses (Natural Resources Governance & Management and Contemporary U.S. Energy Policy) that provided the foundation for my research and provided great feedback during the semester long internship.