Idaho beefs up oversight for gas exploration

A complaint about seismic testing too close to a home leads to an agency warning but no violation.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comFebruary 11, 2014 

Pattie Young’s house started shaking as “thumper trucks” sent vibrations into the ground, searching for natural gas.

The rural New Plymouth woman’s complaint that the Jan. 28 exploration was done illegally close to her home brought a warning from state regulators and increased spot inspections as Idaho’s new gas industry gears up for more drilling and production.

A spokesman for Alta Mesa, the Texas gas-drilling company operating as AM Idaho, said its contractor had not violated the 200-foot setback for seismic exploration established by rules approved by the Idaho Legislature. It has submitted data supporting its position.

“We will share this information with (Idaho Department of Lands) and work with them to address their concerns and clarify their measurements,” John Foster, a spokesman for Alta Mesa, said in a statement.

Young, a welder and metal sculptor, said she was standing at her kitchen sink when her house started vibrating.

“I looked out my window and saw two seismic trucks sitting just over my back fence on the small road 50 feet from my water well and my foundation,” Young said.

Seismic studies are a common technique to detect oil and gas reservoirs deep below the surface without having to drill. Trucks carry a seismic vibrator that sends seismic waves into the earth that reflect or echo off rock layers, bouncing back to the surface where they are recorded. Different rock types and sand layers reflect the vibrations differently; computers process the returning signals, producing a 3-D image of what lies below.

Five seismic studies have been permitted since the beginning of 2012. Young’s was the first complaint filed with the Department of Lands. Three department officials came to her house and walked where she said the trucks had been located.

They contacted Dawson Geophysical, AM Idaho’s contractor, which said its staff had been 203 feet away, outside the 200-foot legal setback.

Robert Johnson, the state’s oil and gas program manager, wrote Dawson on Feb. 5 to say that Dawson’s maps appear to show a testing site “within 200 feet of a residence.”

Because snow had fallen before the state’s staff could investigate, the staff could not confirm the location, Department of Lands officials said.


A violation of the setback could bring a fine of up to $10,000. Rather than issue a fine, state officials sent Dawson “an operational warning,” reminding them of the rules and the penalties. They also decided to increase the frequency of unannounced on-site visits by regulatory staff during explorations.

“As a regulator, we have dual responsibility to protect the resource and the public,” said Idaho Department of Lands Director Tom Schultz. “We couldn’t confirm what happened on the ground, so we took an educational approach.”

Foster said the company will convince the state it followed the law: “We will continue to employ best practices to operate in a safe and respectful manner, whether seismic data acquisition, drilling or production.”

Young was pleased with the state’s quick response but said she wasn’t sure it sent a strong enough message to the oil and gas industry. Since the industry is largely self-regulated, she said, the state needs to be aggressive to build public trust.

“I wonder how many other violations have gone unnoticed and unpunished?” Young asked.


AM Idaho and its partner Snake River Oil and Gas are looking for natural gas on hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Southwest Idaho. AM Idaho is planning to build a dehydration facility (where water vapor is removed) south of New Plymouth near Interstate 84. It is working on permits for a 7- to 10-mile pipeline that would connect new and existing wells in Payette County to the pipeline near Idaho Power Co.’s Langley Gulch natural gas plant near New Plymouth.

It hopes to go into production this year, sending natural gas to customers through the Intermountain Gas pipeline.

AM Idaho is building on its purchase of the interests of Bridge Resources, the company that discovered natural gas and condensate — a mix of petroleum liquids — in 2010 in the Willow Hamilton fields in Payette County. The condensate, which is nearly pure enough to use as jet fuel, is worth even more than the natural gas.

AM Idaho also purchased oil and gas leases in Payette, Washington, Canyon, Gem and Owyhee counties in January, bringing $800,000 to state coffers. They outbid a second firm, Trendwell Energy, which has filed for a permit to drill in Payette County.


The increased drilling activity has some landowners concerned about water wells, said Justin Hayes, Idaho Conservation League program director. Many residents fear the effects of horizontal hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” the controversial process that has opened millions of U.S. acres to natural gas production. But that technique has not been proposed in Idaho, Hayes said.

Hayes wants Idaho regulators and the industry to reach out to local residents to help them understand the real risks and what they are doing to alleviate them. Often, he said, industry representatives have been hostile at public meetings, unnecessarily angering residents.

“It makes it so you can’t have a discussion with the industry,” he said.

But he pointed to Trendwell’s recent application to drill with a “closed loop” system — which keeps all drilling liquids and mud out of the environment — as an example of the kind of practices he wants to see. He shared Young’s view of the state response to her complaint against AM Idaho.

The Department of Lands “is pushing back,” Hayes said, “but I don’t think a warning is enough.”

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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