Letters from the West

Transparency would benefit Idaho’s oil and gas industry, and Idahoans

Picture shows tanker trucks filling up with natural gas liquids from Alta Mesa's natural gas dehydration plant near New Plymouth.
Picture shows tanker trucks filling up with natural gas liquids from Alta Mesa's natural gas dehydration plant near New Plymouth. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

It’s been six years since Idaho Gov. Butch Otter revealed on a bus ride during a trade mission to China that commercial amounts of natural gas had been discovered in Idaho.

Since then Idahoans have been slowly learning about costs and risks the industry presents. So far the financial benefits have not been what the industry suggested we could expect. Since Jan. 1, the Idaho Tax Commission reported $70,559 in receipts from the state’s 2.5 percent severance tax. To be fair, Alta Mesa and other companies have paid millions of dollars in royalty and leasing payments, and in jobs to local contractors.

Most of the action is in Payette County, where Alta Mesa’s Willow Field north of New Plymouth is the focus of attention. The company also is trying to start drilling in Fruitland, where residents have expressed concerns about water quality, noise, traffic and air quality.

State and Alta Mesa officials have held meetings in the area, but many residents remain worried in part because of the way some of the company representatives on the ground have treated them and because of the shroud of secrecy, including the news that only last month revealed oil had been pumped in the western part of the state.

Residents in Eagle and Gem County also are restless, even though some leasing but no drilling has taken place in those areas. So far, much of this fear over the future of the oil and gas industry in Idaho has been funneled through the group Citizens Allied for Integrity and Accountability.

The group has brought in people from other oil- and gas-producing states to warn Idahoans about the threats to water quality, air quality and private property rights based on experiences in states such as Texas and Wyoming. The group also has offered legal counsel for residents who oppose development of their own mineral rights.

But most of all, these critics have told people the main danger they must face is fracking, the nickname for the practice known as hydraulic fracturing. Fracking has become a major environmental political issue nationwide over the past decade after the technology revolutionized the industry, when used in combination with horizontal drilling techniques.

Horizontal fracking in shale deposits under high pressure has turned areas such as the Bakken in North Dakota into major oil and gas producers, and contributed to the United States surpassing Saudi Arabia as an oil producer.

The Treasure Valley’s oil and gas discovery is in sedimentary sand deposits, not shale. Alta Mesa and Idaho Department of Land officials have repeatedly said that high-pressure fracking won’t happen here because of the area’s geology.

But the lower-pressure process, usually called well treatments, which increases the flow of lower-energy wells, may be used in places such as Southwest Idaho when well production drops. And fracking could indeed take place in Eastern Idaho, where exploration is heating up again.

That has kept Citizens Allied leaders trumpeting the fracking threat in town meetings, rule negotiations and committee hearings before the Idaho Legislature. They also push conspiracy theories about which state leader, bureaucrat or even reporter is in the pocket of Alta Mesa.

This has allowed Alta Mesa to portray any of its critics as crazies or misinformed rabble who don’t want any oil and gas drilling in Idaho. In my story last Sunday, I reported on other oil and gas companies that say they want to invest millions more in Idaho but are stopped by rules Alta Mesa largely wrote to keep out the competition.

I also have heard landowners with mineral rights, such as Tom and Marcia Roland, express concern that their interests are not being protected by the state. John Ballard, a real estate agent who lives in Eagle near Firebird Racetrack, is like a lot of residents in Ada and Gem counties. They are concerned drilling could threaten their water.

“Twenty-five years from now, if that aquifer goes bad, and we can’t fix it, who can we hold accountable?” Ballard asks.

His questions and concerns are valid. So are those of people who hold mineral rights and want to be sure they are getting their fair share. So are the concerns of surface-right owners who don’t own the subsurface rights and have little leverage in the “good faith” negotiations with the only company in town.

Ask yourself: Do I want a natural gas processing facility 300 feet from my home? That’s what new state rules propose.

Transparency and strong oversight would go a long way to ensuring that Idaho not only protects residents, but also attracts the kind of competition that will make a healthier industry. Today, state law and rules allow oil and gas drillers to keep their production data secret from state regulators for six months and a year from the public.

Most states require disclosure of production records in 30 days, the Department of Lands said. Idaho is bringing in a team from the interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission to audit the Idaho program, now that we’re six years in. It’s no longer what the industry calls a “frontier play.”

For years, Alta Mesa has argued that regulations need to be consistent state to state so the industry knows what to expect and how to operate. Now’s the time to back that rhetoric with action.

Following the lead of other states and promoting openness would allow Idaho to develop and conserve its resources for the benefit of Idahoans, and start to reduce some of the skepticism and conspiracy theories.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker