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Western Idaho Community Split Over Natural Gas Drilling

Feb. 6, 2012 | Boise State Public Radio/Idaho Public Television
Aaron Kunz


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In New Plymouth, Idaho, high unemployment has many wondering how to put food on the table. Some have even left to find work elsewhere. | credit: Aaron Kunz | rollover image for more

NEW PLYMOUTH, Idaho — As the Idaho Legislature works to develop uniform rules for the natural gas industry this year. The potential drilling for gas has split one town in two.

Unemployment in New Plymouth, Idaho is 9.9 percent. In a small town like this, that means everyone knows someone looking for work.

Jared Belanger, owner of Crown Industrial, knows this first hand. He once had a dozen employees at his small pipe and welding shop. But when the economy tanked, sales plummeted. Belanger was forced to layoff all but four employees.

“Bottom line is, businesses have to make money to stay in business,” Belanger says. “And the same with employees, every dollar that my employees make they spend a lot of it right here in town or within the valley.”

Belanger says the oil and gas industry could mean the difference between success and failure for a business like his. Two years ago, gas exploration crews used Crown Industrial to build the pipes used in their first test wells.

Billy Brummett says he knows dozens of people who need jobs in this small, Western Idaho town near the Oregon border.

He was one of them until he found work in December driving a truck. Brummett says the oil and gas industry could provide plenty of good-paying jobs in New Plymouth. The only problem is – the industry can’t start hiring until the state finishes the business of developing industry rules.

“It’s been explained to me - the process. It’s a safe process that has been utilized for years - they know what they are doing with it,” says Brummett, who worked for a natural gas exploration company and saw first hand how they do business.

View Payette County 01 in a larger map

Tina Fisher doesn’t agree. She says the prospect of drilling for natural gas is frightening. Bridge Resources had proposed to build a dehydrator next door to Fisher’s country home.

Fisher says she doesn’t trust the industry. She asked state leaders at several public hearings to slow down. Fisher wants to make sure her drinking water is clean and the air is safe to breath. There must also be accountability she says, asking lawmakers to consider using trace fluids as part of the process.

“If it does show up in my well, I can say oh, that’s whatever chemical that might be. Inert of course - but that belongs to Bridge Energy or that belongs to Snake River Oil and Gas so the contamination of my well is on them,” Fisher says.

Alma Hasse moved to Payette County a few years ago with her husband. They wanted to retire here but are worried drilling for natural gas will lower the quality of country life.

Hasse claims drilling for natural gas could contaminate water in the underground aquifer with escaping gas. She is also worried drilling could releases radon into the air, questions the safety of injection fluids. She even says there is proof in Ohio that drilling can cause earthquakes.

It’s a charge the industry nationwide says isn’t true. Scientists have recently acknowledged a link between the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes that have occurred recently from Ohio to Oklahoma. But they have yet to reach consensus on what that connection may be.

Hasse doesn’t trust the industry - she also doesn’t trust the state to regulate the oil and gas companies. Calling the relationship a conflict of interest because state leaders have been vocal in promoting oil and gas at the same time they are drafting rules to restrict the industry.

“It’s smoke and mirrors, that’s the best description that I can give,” she says. “What we’ve seen from industry to this point is nothing but smoke and mirrors and that makes me very uncomfortable because my farm and my animals, and my health and the health of my daughters and my grand baby are dependent on our water.”

The oil and gas industry recently worked with the Idaho Association of Counties to draft a bill that gives operational powers to the State of Idaho while limiting the county governments role to planning and zoning.

But not everyone is happy over this agreement. Washington County commissioners have been developing local industry rules. This new agreement would reduce their ability to regulate the industry.

Washington County is a member of the Idaho Association of Counties. Commissioner Rick Michael says it severely limits their ability to do what the county feels is in their best interest. Despite being a member, Washington County leaders say they weren’t even asked to participate in the agreement efforts.

Legis - Oil and Gas Conservation Commission - Industry Proposal Final Draft

© 2012 Boise State Public Radio/Idaho Public Television
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