Getting "Mini"-Fracked 

New Plymouth wells will undergo controversial technique

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Justin Hayes couldn't get over what he called the "unbelievable timing."

As program director of Idaho Conservation League, Hayes delivered an impassioned plea on April 19 before the Idaho Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to prohibit carcinogenic chemicals in fracking, the controversial technique of injecting high-pressured fluids to improve flows through wells.

The commission denied Hayes' request and adopted temporary rules, using existing procedures in Wyoming as a model.

Less than 24 hours later, Hayes stared at a news story reporting that oil and gas companies operating in Wyoming had injected thousands of gallons of water containing known carcinogens into wells from 2005-2009. The report, issued by members of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, said as many as 29 of the chemicals were known or suspected human carcinogens.

Ironically, one day prior, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, chair of Idaho's Oil and Gas Commission, asked Idaho Department of Lands Minerals Program Manager Eric Wilson about that exact same subject.

"In regard to toxic fluids," Otter asked Wilson, "Are there any other states that use these driving fluids?"

"Carcinogenic is a very broad term," said Wilson dismissively. "Even Twinkies could be considered carcinogenic."

But Twinkies weren't on the list of carcinogens found in the congressional analysis of fracking fluids used in Wyoming and 14 other states. Methanol--a hazardous air pollutant--was on the list, as was 2-butoxyethanol, a solvent used in paints and cleaning products.

Bridge Resources, the Colorado-based company that has thus far drilled 11 natural gas wells in Payette County, doesn't like to use the term "fracking."

"We call our process 'mini-fracking,'" said Kim Parsons, Bridge's exploration project manager. "It's dramatically less than what you've been hearing about in the media."

The evening before the commission hearing, Parsons hosted a separate meeting on the same issue: a town hall session at the New Plymouth Senior Center, not far from Bridge's exploration wells.

"We've been totally transparent in what we're doing," Parsons told the standing-room-only gathering. "We have fully disclosed the ingredients that we want to use for our mini-fracking."

Bridge's website (bridgeresourcescorp.com) states that its main (99.5 percent) mini-frack ingredient is water, followed by silica sand, guar (a food thickening substance), soap, detergent enzymes, boron (another thickener) and acetic acid (a form of vinegar).

"I really don't have many concerns about what they want to use today," said Hayes. "But when you challenge them to commit to not using cancer-causing compounds in the future, they get all mealy-mouthed. It's a slippery slope. Unfortunately, we've seen it go horribly bad in Pennsylvania."

Hayes has closely monitored an accident in Leroy Township, Penn., where a fracking "blowout" spilled thousands of gallons of drilling fluids across farm fields and into a stream, resulting in evacuations of nearby residents.

The Pennsylvania accident occurred 24 hours after the New Plymouth town hall meeting, but residents of the Payette County hamlet imagined just such a scenario when they quizzed Parsons about a remedial plan in case of emergencies.

"We don't have one," Parsons said.

Not satisfied that the company's interests had been represented by Parsons' short answer, Bridge Land and Acquisitions Manager Jodie West quickly jumped in.

"All of that really would go through our insurance company, IMA Insurance," West told New Plymouth residents. "We have pollution liability insurance and coverage that meets and exceeds anything the state would ever require."

But the State of Idaho won't require a bond from Bridge, at least anytime soon.

Hayes pleaded with the Oil and Gas Commission to introduce a bond to safeguard Idahoans from a potential fracking emergency, but the commission denied the request.

"It was incredibly unfortunate," said Hayes. "It doesn't speak well to the potential for getting bonding included in the permanent rule-making process. I think it shirks [the commission's] statutory responsibility."

The permanent rule-making process gets underway this summer, with Bridge, ICL and the Department of Lands all expected at the table.

Bridge is anxious to get working. Of 11 wells exploration wells, three were immediately successful. Otter went as far as calling one well "sweet" in 2010, championing a new industry for the Gem State (BW, News, "Hell of a Well," July 14, 2010). But four of the 11 were deemed dry, and Bridge wants to frack the remaining four.

For the nearly three hours at the April 18 New Plymouth meeting, Parsons schooled attendees on the geology and physics required to drill through Payette County's layers of sand and shale to tap what will become Idaho's first-ever commercial natural gas production operation.

"We're looking at laying pipeline as early as this May," said Ron Richards, Bridge's drilling manager. Richards said Bridge expects to link its gas wells to the Williams' Northwest Pipeline system, which boasts 3,900 miles of natural gas transmission across six Western states and British Columbia.

"After the commission denied our requests, I spoke briefly with Gov. Otter," said Hayes. "I asked him for a little help. We believe that if this is done right, the state can guarantee good revenue streams, but also ensure that local communities are protected and our drinking water is not harmed. We want that balance."

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