GAS & OIL FACT SHEET – S.W. IDAHO
- A natural gas field in southwest Idaho and into Oregon has been and continues to be seismically explored and gradually developed by a succession of smaller petro-industry companies over the past few years. Gas is reported to be largely held in alluvial areas (along river bottoms), so exploration/leasing is taking place extensively in established farmlands and residential areas, as well as in the hills.
- Alta Mesa Services (a.k.a. “AM Idaho LLC” – subsidiary of a company out of Texas) is the current developer of a number of gas wells and infrastructure in Payette County. Their agents have been actively courting officials in Payette, Washington, Gem, and Owyhee Counties for the past few years – and Oil & Gas ordinances have been implemented or are being worked on in these jurisdictions (as well as some others). They have quietly been amassing leased mineral rights all around the Treasure Valley as well. Along with private leases, they have asked for many sections of State-held mineral rights to be put up for lease auction and have leased tens of thousands of acres from the State – and have plans to lease much more.
- The Idaho Association of Counties was lobbied by the industry to produce a heavily industry-favoring boiler-plate “Model Zoning Ordinance for Oil and Gas Operations” – which the IAC then distributed to the counties Alta Mesa wished to enter first. After Payette and Washington County adopted the simplistic IAC ordinance with few improvements, citizens of Gem County presented an extensively researched “Citizens’ Draft Ordinance” to the Zoning subcommittee tasked with developing an ordinance; but county personnel decided that the committee should instead use the simpler IAC draft as a basis – as did each of the other counties that has undertaken this. (The “Citizens’ Draft” – based on experience from many jurisdictions already experience in gas & oil-related issues – is available here: http://www.ProtectGemCounty.org/G&O-Draft-Ordinance.htm)
- The State of Idaho has “occupied the field” of gas and oil development via HB 464 in 2012. This made it illegal for any county or city to prevent gas/oil development within its borders. The Idaho “Local Land Use Planning Act” (Title 67, Chapter 65), however, reserves to the counties the right/duty to establish ordinances that protect citizens’ rights (health and welfare, enjoyment and use of property) and county resources (water, air, soil, recreational values).
- “Setbacks” from a gas well (or processing facility or pipeline) to a residence/school/hospital or local water supply represent one of the only ways citizens’ rights may be protected from intrusions of gas wells and other infrastructure. The State minimum setback is only 300’ – counties can extend that to any distance needed to protect their citizens and resources and still allow the gas industry to operate. (Higher county minimum setbacks could be reduced by willing property owners. Directional drilling – sideways underground – can also afford industry a way to compensate for setback distances.)
- Ordinances also may regulate other typical effects from gas/oil development: noise, dust, lights, unsightliness.
- Will there be fracking here?: Alta Mesa spokesmen have long claimed that gas in this field is held within easily-accessed gravelly pockets (sedimentary sand deposits) rather than the “tight shale” of many other areas undergoing “unconventional” (usually horizontal) gas extraction, and that they “do not foresee a need” here to “frack” (i.e., use especially problematic high-volume, high-pressure hydraulic fracturing extraction methods common in other areas of the country). There has not been a promise not to frack, however (and there are shale layers as well in these same areas). The company would need a special State permit for high-volume fracking – and the State is prepared now to accept such permit applications.
- “Acidization” (sometimes called “mini-fracking”), another environmentally risky “well treatment” that stimulates greater production, is a lower-volume wellbore prepping method now very common in “conventional” (usually vertical) drilling operations. Some of the Payette County wells have been said by industry to “require stimulation through fracking” at the outset. It remains to be seen whether this prognostication refers only to the acidization done or to horizontal fracking as well.
- Idaho Dept. of Lands has been granting Alta Mesa’s applications for exceptions to its rules – and has been explaining fracking to the public. The State mineral leases, in fact, require the use of such “well stimulation” treatments if necessary to maximize the flow of gas or oil. A Petroglyph Energy (Boise company) spokesman told the Eagle City Council in 10/2015 that they have fracked all of their many gas wells in Utah’s Uintah Basin, which has similar geology to SW Idaho.
- The Williams Northwest Pipeline, from the Canadian border in Washington to Colorado, runs through Payette County and across southern Idaho and is to be linked into via Alta Mesa’s collector pipelines. Alta Mesa has been building a linked-in condenser station in Payette County at the entrance to the Emmett Valley (where prevailing winds flow toward the inversion-creating hills around Emmett).
- State air quality regulations allow any number of air-polluting facilities in a given area, as long as the toxic emissions of each individually are under specific guidelines. (Therefore, Alta Mesa’s plans include many small processing plants dotted all around the region.) There is no accounting for the total aggregate emissions of what could be hundreds of small air-polluting facilities (on top of such Idaho Power gas plants as at Langley Gulch – conveniently sited just outside the Boise Valley airshed) in a developed gas/oil field.
- Most people do not realize that there are big loopholes solely for the gas & oil industry in a number of major federal environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.
- Using Gem County as an example, there has been no mapping done of the county’s aquifers, no type of environmental studies, nor adequate baseline testing of air or water in the area. Without prior testing, it is virtually impossible to legally prove that gas/oil development is responsible for any contamination that occurs. The gas industry generally refuses to disclose the chemicals they use in drilling/fracking and processing gas or oil, despite the fact that this would put emergency and medical personnel at a great disadvantage in the event of a calamity. There are also usually naturally-occurring toxic elements brought to the surface from deep underground with gas extraction – but the industry does not hold itself responsible for any “natural” toxins its activities produce. Gem County Commissioners wisely arranged for a first-of-its-kind county-wide baseline water sampling program, in conjunction with USGS, prior to the commencement of drilling in the area. Though thorough, professional water testing is expensive, it would behoove any homeowner in an area targeted for gas development to invest in this protective tool.
- Seismic testing is done (and much has been done) prior to identifying most target parcels for leasing. Seismic testing permits may be separate from or part of a mineral rights lease (see next). Seismic exploration involves giant “thumper trucks” (“veibroseis” vehicles) and/or underground explosive charges that shake the ground – and sensors, placed all around the area, that pick up information about what it “looks like” underground. Seismic sensing is harmless, but the earth-shaking seismic testing can cause damage just as mild earthquakes can.
- The beginning of leasing is likely to be when a “landman” (leasing agents hired by the development company) comes to your door – if you are known to own your mineral rights; or if the development company wishes to do seismic testing in your neighborhood and cares to have your property accommodate their equipment for a time. Landmen (and women) are paid when you sign a lease – be aware that they are not interested in your knowing the truth about what signing a lease will bring about. Any lease is negotiable; and no lease must be signed. Do your due diligence in educating yourself about what can ensue, because a landman definitely will not do it for you. It is only prudent to consult an attorney if you are thinking of signing any legal document. (And this document will be recorded so as to protect the company’s interests – you must protect yours.)
- Property values are commonly negatively affected by nearby gas wells (certainly if trouble ensues; possibly if even a lease is signed; possibly if even a lease is signed by a neighbor). Many mortgage providers won’t lend on such property due to potential hazards and value loss, and gas/oil mineral rights leases automatically cause “technical defaults” on current mortgages. The recorded lease is a “cloud” on your title. A lease may make it harder to get a farm loan, or to sell your property (especially if a potential buyer can’t get a mortgage on it – but also because informed property seekers do not wish to live in industrialized neighborhoods). Homeowner’s insurance policies can also be compromised by a gas lease.
- A “split estate” = where property owners do not own the mineral rights underneath their surface land (in which case they are usually owned by the State but may also be owned by the federal government or a private party, such as a subdivision developer). Any mineral rights owners may lease to the gas developer – and split estate surface-only owners cannot prevent the leasing company from accessing and drilling or building other infrastructure elements (e.g., waste ponds, condenser stations, roads) on their land. (Only minimum setbacks give them a buffer zone around their homes and drinking water wells/springs.) In Idaho, lack of mineral rights does not have to be disclosed by title companies, realtors, or property sellers (who likely assume they own them, even if they do not).
- Idaho State legislators approved “forced pooling” (euphemistically called “integration” by IDL) via HB 50 in 2015. This allows the developer to petition the State to force unwilling mineral rights owners to lease to them if they obtain leases for a mere 55% of the acres in a given (nominally 640-acre) section. The stated rationale for this is to be able to “ensure” that all mineral rights owners have a share in any royalties from the pool of gas/oil – but in this guise (they could, after all, ensure that by simply paying those not leased what they are due), developers have been allowed rights to use surface land as well… as if the owner had leased to them. In effect, this puts them in the same powerless position as split estate surface-only owners, except that those who are force-pooled will be paid a small royalty (minus their share of costs).
- For more information on gas and oil development and its effects on people and communities, see the website of Citizens Allied for Integrity and Accountability: http://www.IntegrityAndAccountability.com
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