Letters from the West

Department of Lands sticks with 300 foot setback for oil and gas plants

AM Idaho's Willow Creek gathering and initial processing facility eight miles north of New Plymouth. Residents want the state to increase the setback from homes and work places from the current 300 foot minimum.
AM Idaho's Willow Creek gathering and initial processing facility eight miles north of New Plymouth. Residents want the state to increase the setback from homes and work places from the current 300 foot minimum. doswald@idahostatesman.com

The Idaho Department of Lands held tight to a 300 foot setback for oil and gas infrastructure from people's homes and work places in negotiated rulemaking in Boise Wednesday.

Local activists from Weiser, Eagle and Payette sought to increase the setback to at least 500 feet for oil and gas wells, tanks and processing facilities. But Idaho Department of Lands moderator Eric Wilson said landowners can negotiate wider setbacks and counties also can require wider setbacks during planning and zoning review during construction.

But Mary Sue Roach, a Weiser nurse practitioner said counties have been unwilling to push wider setbacks because of concerns about industry lawsuits. Landowners with mineral rights have the leverage to get larger setbacks, she said, using the gas well at the Smoke Ranch on Idaho 52 near New Plymouth as an example. It has an 800-foot setback.

If you are a surface owner in a split estate situation you have very little, if any, negotiating power when you are working on a “good faith” agreement with the industry," Roach said. "You are subservient to the mineral estate. "

She said the industry need only pay a $5,000 bond and it can come on your property without an agreement.

"A surface owner would probably never be successful in negotiating a greater setback," she said. "The surface owner needs a larger bond, $10,000, and a bigger setback, a 500 foot minimum, to have more adequate protection for their property."

Doug Paddock, of the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils , said the setback is a health issue.

Emissions from oil and gas operations contain methane, but can also contain toxic volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene, and xylene, he said. Residents also worry about accidents or impacts to their property value and reduced quality of life caused by odor, noise, dust, light, spills, and traffic.

"Out-of-state oil and gas companies continue to have their interests put over the health and safety of Idaho’s people," Paddock said.

North Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado have 500 foot setbacks, some states have no setbacks and they range from 200 to 2000 feet, the Idaho Department of Lands said.

Former Sen. Larry Craig, who lobbys for oil and gas businesses, said counties can set wider setbacks but they can't make them so high they prevent drilling. He also urged activists to talk to their counties.

"Would you live 300 feet from a gas processing facility?" Craig asked rhetorically. "I know I wouldn't."

Roach told Idaho lawmakers in a letter she wasn't against the oil and gas industry.

" It just needs to be a responsible and respectful industry," Roach said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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