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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Public needs seat at table as Idaho sets drilling rules

Idaho is shutting the public out of oil and gas regulation.

Last week, the Senate Resources and Environment Committee unanimously approved a bill that will create a new Oil and Gas Commission to oversee development of the industry. The full Senate could vote on the measure as early as Monday.

Oversight has been in the hands of the state Board of Land Commissioners, acting as the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Those officials – the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, controller and superintendent of public instruction – doubtless have more urgent tasks than bird-dogging an industry as complex as oil and gas production, even with the assistance of the Department of State Lands.

And, until 2009, there really was not much to regulate. But the discovery of commercial volumes of natural gas below Payette County refocused attention on laws that had not been updated for a quarter-century.

Reforms adopted last year were not without controversy, mainly because the state took – or reclaimed – the power to approve or deny drilling for oil and gas. Counties did retain zoning, setback and other authority.

Meanwhile, 11 wells have been drilled, eight of which found gas. They have been “shut in” pending construction of a pipeline that can transport the gas to market. That could happen within the next year or two. The wells are close to the main gas pipeline through Southern Idaho and, even more serendipitously, Idaho Power Co. last year completed construction of a nearby power plant to be fueled by … natural gas.

Idaho could be on the threshold of a mini-bonanza. Mini, that is, until additional drilling can determine the size of the resource. The state of Idaho stands to be a direct beneficiary of some of this activity because it owns the mineral rights on some areas leased for drilling.

The state is following up on the reforms made last year with legislation creating the new commission. Although a necessary measure, there is one glaring defect: the composition of the five-member commission.

One must be knowledgeable about oil and gas, another about geology, a third in water. There are also two seats for landowners, one a mineral rights owner where there is drilling activity, another without mineral rights.

What’s missing? A seat at the table for the public, landowner or not.

In Montana, where the development of oil and gas resources goes back almost a century, the Board of Oil & Gas Conservation has exactly the same composition proposed in Idaho, plus two public members, one of whom must be an attorney. The addition of at least one member with no stake whatsoever in the industry would be reassuring to a public hearing horror stories about the effects gas drilling in Ohio and Pennsylvania is having on groundwater. In that regard, having a water expert on the commission is a good idea, as far as it goes.

There should be one more seat on that commission.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.
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