Idaho's Gasland Rules Debated 

Getting testy over fracking, local control

For more than a century, oil and gas exloration companies drilled in Idaho to no avail, until Bridge Resources began having success in Payette County in 2010.

Laurie Pearman

For more than a century, oil and gas exloration companies drilled in Idaho to no avail, until Bridge Resources began having success in Payette County in 2010.

Tom Schultz's wardrobe has everything to do with where he's standing. The new director of the Idaho Department of Lands wore a perfectly tailored suit on Feb. 1 while addressing lawmakers at the Idaho Statehouse. Twenty-four hours later, he sported a plaid shirt, jeans and cowboy boots (by far, the cleanest in the room) as he spoke with Washington County landowners in Weiser.

Schultz's speech matched his wardrobe. Talking to lawmakers, it was "Good afternoon Mr. Chairman," or "Good morning Senator." While chatting with farmers and ranchers in the Weiser Vendome, he was downright folksy.

"Howdy," said Schultz, sauntering to the front of the Weiser conference room.

There wasn't much response, except for a far-off train whistle.

"Let's try this again. Howdy!" shouted Schultz.

A roomful of loud "howdy's" returned his greeting.

"That's a lot better," said Schultz with a broad grin.

During the next two hours, he shared a bit about himself professionally (he was Montana's land manager for 15 years before joining the department last August 2011) and personally (he's a Boy Scout leader).

"Idaho needs to adopt the Boy Scout motto," said Schultz. "Idaho needs to be prepared."

Schultz wants Idaho to be prepared for more drilling from the burgeoning natural-gas industry. For a century, natural-resource explorers came to Idaho attempting to pull gas from the Gem State's core, but to no avail. That is, until two years ago, when the Canadian-owned Bridge Resources started snapping up hundreds of leases with Payette County landowners, eventually drilling 11 wells in Payette County.

But controversy followed, first with Bridge's financial health--a BW investigation revealed that Bridge's finances were a house of cards (BW, Feature, "Bridge Under Troubled Waters" Oct. 5, 2011). Secondly, Bridge made it clear that it intended to use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to enhance gas flows at some of its wells. Even though company officials insisted that their fracking methods would be different from other troubling procedures in Pennsylvania or Wyoming, the fact remained that Idaho had little to no rules to govern fracking. Whether it was Bridge or any other company that desired to drill, Idaho needed to do its homework on fracking--and quick.

As a result, Schultz's Department of Lands was charged with drafting new guidelines. Marathon rule-making sessions (BW, News, "A is for Act," June 8, 2011) produced 43 pages of proposed regulations that now await approval from the Idaho Legislature.

But for all of its attention to detail, the section of the proposed rules that is getting the most scrutiny involves fracking. If the regulations become law, there would be no restriction on carcinogenic materials if they were to be used in the high-pressured fracking process.

"No good can come from pumping carcinogenic chemicals into the ground," Justin Hayes, program director for the Idaho Conservation League, told the Senate Resources and Environment Committee on Feb. 1.

Citizen testimony echoed Hayes' concern.

"The rest of the country is going to hell because of fracking," said Lee Helper. "It's an abomination in the name of greed and money."

Alma Hasse, a Payette County landowner, said she wasn't against gas drilling but was "against it if it couldn't be done safely."

"I don't like being the canary in the coal mine," said Hasse.

The fracking debate surfaced the next day in Weiser, with a new wrinkle. In addition to the proposed rule that would allow the use of carcinogenic materials, it also would allow drillers to not publicly disclose what fracking materials they would use. Oil and gas exploration companies complained that by disclosing their fracking materials, they would be revealing so-called "trade secrets."

"There is nothing we can do to override that trade secret provision," said Eric Wilson from the Department of Lands.

Hasse, who attended both the Statehouse and Weiser meetings, raised her hand in objection.

"This is our land," she said. "You can't say putting all this stuff into the earth isn't going to backfire."

Things took a further turn for the worse when debate erupted over yet another proposed piece of gas-industry legislation that could strip local authority when determining whether to grant drilling permits.

"As a private citizen, this statute would take away my rights," said Mary Sue Roach.

Other impromptu comments were barked out from the crowd.

"This is crap," shouted one man, who stormed out of the meeting.

Wilson grabbed the microphone to lecture the gathering to "act like adults."

"Let's try to be civil," said Wilson sternly.

The legislation was co-authored by the Idaho Petroleum Council, a lobbyist organization representing drillers, and the Idaho Association of Counties. Kerry Ellen Elliott, lobbyist for the IAC, said while the proposed measure would still allow local governments to have a role in the permitting process, they could no longer say no to drilling.

"They lost their ability to prohibit exploration," said Elliott. "But I really don't think the world has changed. If someone disputes drilling, they can always take it to court."

But Mike Hopkins, commissioner in Washington County where the next round of gas drilling could occur sooner rather than later, said the first he saw of the proposed legislation was after it had been announced.

"No, we weren't sitting at the table when these things were decided," said Hopkins. "Yes, we were a little surprised that it had been settled and an agreement had been made."

He said he is concerned about this legislation but more worried about what is to follow.

"It's always a slippery slope. If the state erodes our local authority or control on this issue, what's to stop them on the next one, or the next one?" he said and paused. "Or the next one?"

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