Letters From the West

Idaho doesn’t do fracking, but residents express concerns anyway

A gas flare during a test of a natural gas well near New Plymouth owned by Snake River Oil and Gas.

A gas flare during a test of a natural gas well near New Plymouth owned by Snake River Oil and Gas.

The term “fracking” has been turned into an epithet against everything people don’t like about the current natural gas boom that has echoed across the United States.

It specifically refers to the practice of hydraulic fracturing, the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas. But for many residents of southwest Idaho – where since 2010 several companies have been exploring and preparing for production of natural gas – all of the various activities that both threaten their property values and quality of life have been often been linked as bad under the “fracking” term.

Sandstone, not shale underlies southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon where this exploration is concentrated. There is no fracking in sandstone, though the unfortunate term of “mini-fracking” that former drillers Bridge Energy used for well stimulation – a similar but less-pressurized practice – confused the issue.

But the recent seismic exploration campaign that continues by AltaMesa or AM Idaho has made many homeowners in Payette County uneasy.

Pattie Young of New Plymouth filed a complaint with the Idaho Department of Lands, which issued a warning but no violation. It did increase its spot checking and Young’s official complaint wasn’t the only call the state got about the exploration program, which is running through a more populated area than its past four projects.

But Robert Johnson – the state’s oil and gas program manager who came to Idaho from Wyoming, where he has a lot of experience – said he considers AM Idaho one of the best operators he’s dealt with. He appears to be acting as the referee, the role Idaho hired him to be.

That’s especially important now since Idahoans have never experienced the sort of intrusions that come from oil and gas exploration and production, which are a way of life in places like Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Wyoming and Utah. Having huge thumper trucks, pipelines, dehydration plants, drilling rigs and all sorts of equipment hauled around their neighborhoods is a new thing.

But it’s not fracking.

I also have received several calls from folks in Payette County who are happy to see the economic activity after a long stretch of hard times. They have not been happy that the complaints of their neighbors are getting so much attention from me and the rest of the media.

Others have complained to their county commissioners and lawmakers to ensure the state protects their royalties they expect will come in the future from natural gas sales.

If you dismiss the complaints of Payette residents as simply NIMBYism, consider the folks in eastern Idaho who have had to adjust to the shadow of wind plants next to their homes. Or consider the recent news about ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson.

He recently joined a lawsuit aimed to stop a water tower that would provide water to natural gas drillers operations near his home. They are fracking, a practice he and his company uses and celebrates.

All of these people have legitimate concerns. These are the typical clashing values that our democracy has long found ways to resolve.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

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