Drilling Into Idaho's (Other) Common Core 

The Gem State extracts more gas from earth's crust

Alta Mesa V.P. of Operations Dale Hayes (center) and Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter (right) were the media stars of a July 17 well and pipeline tour in Payette County.

Matt Furber

Alta Mesa V.P. of Operations Dale Hayes (center) and Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter (right) were the media stars of a July 17 well and pipeline tour in Payette County.

They're called hydrocarbons and they've been trapped beneath Idaho's landscape for millions of years. But now, for the first time in its history, Idaho is giving up its gas. The recipient: Texas-based Alta Mesa Holdings (which has created a subsidiary in Alta Mesa Idaho). As stakeholders wrestle with environmentalists to hash out the latest revisions to state rules to regulate the burgeoning industry, gas exploration and extraction has reached its most rapid pace.

Turn to traditional Idaho media outlets and you'll get the rosiest of pictures. In their coverage of an Alta Mesa-sponsored publicity event, showcasing their Idaho operations with a beaming Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter on hand, the July 18 Idaho Statesman reminded its readers of the millions that would flow into state coffers through royalties; and, on July 17, KTVB reported that "more wells could provide a greater benefit to the local economy."

Boise Weekly readers know different--that Idaho's road to its first commercially viable gas exploration has been nuanced on its best days (BW, News, "A is for Act," June 8, 2011), prickly on others (BW, News, "No Sale," June 22, 2011), and downright clumsy on others still (BW, News, "Bridge Under Troubled Waters," Oct. 5, 2011).

But on July 17, it was all smiles as Alta Mesa President and CEO Hal Chappelle told members of its well and pipeline tour that his company was positioned--when all of its wells were online--to deliver daily some 20 million cubic feet of natural gas, possibly before the end of the year. The tour included journalists, Otter, top dogs from Intermountain Gas and other members of the oil and gas industry.

The tour began on SW 3rd Avenue, in the Payette County town of New Plymouth. It's a site that BW had visited on a number of previous occasions--it was drilled by Bridge Energy in 2010, a year before massive debt sent the company into a tailspin. But, in the wake of Bridge's failure, Alta Mesa snapped up many of the company's leases (BW, Citydesk, "Bridge Resources Poised to Sell Assets," March 7, 2012) and has since struck its own deal with Intermountain Gas, saying Alta Mesa could soon extract about 250,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day. In fact, Dale Hayes, vice president of operations for Alta Mesa, said the gas was so dry an adjacent holding tank for condensate had yet to be emptied for transportation to a waste center. The ground around the well looked "very clean," said Otter who joined the tour to see how the industry was coming along.

"We were out here when there was no ground disturbed, there was no equipment around and we were told this is what's going to happen and this is how it's going to happen. At that time we didn't have a clue. I was the only one that had any inclination of what happens when you drill wells," said the governor, explaining that he once managed an oil exploration company for the J.R. Simplot Company more than 30 years ago. "The only subsurface wealth anyone ever looked for was minerals or water."

Meanwhile, Justin Hayes, Idaho Conservation League program director for conservation, who has been a regular participant in negotiated rule-making sessions, described the guidelines as "moderate rules, not old-school rules."

"Idaho is starting fresh with the benefit of relatively protective rules, but we don't have the experience," said Hayes. "We're still scrambling so we don't get hoodwinked by a savvy industry. The rule-making process is ongoing."

Michael Brune, executive director of the 2.4 million member-strong Sierra Club, is much more blunt on the issue. He said Idaho shouldn't even be considering gas exploration, let alone rule-making (see Page 12).

"Natural gas is a dirty fossil fuel," Brune told BW. "There's no way to build an economy fueled by clean energy that includes natural gas."

Brune said Idahoans needed to "look out" if fracking was on the horizon.

But Alta Mesa has told anyone who will listen that fracking isn't in their plans. That claim doesn't jibe, considering the fact that Bridge Resources, the company that actually drilled the wells that Alta Mesa currently owns, said back in April 2011 that its exploration plans included something it called "mini-fracking" (BW, News, "Getting Mini-Fracked," April 27, 2011).

Otter said during the July 17 Alta Mesa tour that when Bridge first came knocking on Idaho's door the state was indeed unprepared for the ramifications of exploring for gas.

"There wasn't anybody that knew anything about it. Why would we? We never had any gas exploration and development or oil or anything like that," said Otter, adding that after some initial negative reaction to drilling, seismic testing (BW, News, "Payette County's Manmade Quake," Aug.2, 2012) and construction of a pipeline and dehydration facility (BW, News, "Payette County's Thingamajig,"July 20, 2011), things "seem to be coming around" in support of the drilling for gas.

"We don't get near the phone calls we got when all of this started two and a half, three years ago," said Otter. "They've done such a good job educating the public."

Alta Mesa's Chappelle insists that gas discoveries in Payette and Canyon counties suggest enough potential commercial viability to justify Alta Mesa's investment of tens of millions of dollars into a growing industry.

"There's a lot a spuddin' in here," said Otter, showing off his command of "oil and gas speak" for preparing a well head for drilling.

Meanwhile, the governor said he relies heavily on the Idaho Land Board's now year-old oil and gas commission to keep him abreast of the industry's stewardship of the environment, including air and water quality.

"You see a lot of this equipment that's being put in here? There isn't anybody that's gonna dig a hole in the ground and walk away from this kind of investment," Otter said. "So, it gives you a high level of confidence that what they said they are gonna do, they're doin'. What they told us our expectations were we can expect."

Although Chappelle characterized Alta Mesa's current Idaho operations as an "exploration phase," contractors were also busy constructing 11 miles of pipeline that will ultimately connect extracted reserves from up to a dozen natural gas wells, some drilled and some still-to-be completed later this summer. Fuel will be delivered by pipeline to compressors designed to prepare fuels for delivery to the 4,000-mile Northwest Pipeline owned by The Williams Companies, Inc, which runs adjacent to I-84, near New Plymouth, and serves much of the Northwest United States.

Alta Mesa officials said they're planning to drill five more wells this summer, and Otter said Alta Mesa was giving him increasing confidence that it will be taking the utmost caution in its gas exploration.

"Having been here, listened to everything; does that make me an expert? No. Does that give me comfort? Yes," said Otter.

But Brune, with the Sierra Club, said he has seen too many gas exploration operations in too many other states not to have a bad feeling about Idaho's choice to drill for gas.

"Don't believe the hype," he told BW. "We are at a fork in the trail and we have an opportunity to reject fossil fuels."

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