Voting 31-4, the Senate on Thursday approved and sent to the House a controversial bill touted by pro-gas drilling supporters as “streamlining” the permit process for new oil and gas wells – but broadly opposed by non-drilling interests as a threat to private property rights and yet another state giveaway to the fossil fuel industry.
Senate Bill 1339 is among the most divisive pieces of environmental legislation currently before the Idaho Legislature. Among other things, the sweeping legislation would slash the time gas companies would need to process their state permits, something that bill critics argue short-circuits public review and the opportunity to comment on drilling permit requests. It would put the Idaho Department of Lands in charge of initial decisions on drilling permits, relegating the gubernatorial-appointed Idaho Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to hear appeals of IDL decisions. If it wasn’t already, it’s clear in these early years of the Idaho oil and gas business that the industry is growing faster than the state’s ability to keep up and to regulate it.
Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, who opposed the bill on the floor and was the lone vote in opposition in the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, told constituents in her newsletter “The bill, sponsored by Alta Mesa, would shift authority from the Oil and Gas Commission to the Director of the Idaho Department of Lands. By eliminating the rules review process for contested cases, this bill puts an undue legal burden on landowners, assumes the IDL has the expertise and staff to accommodate applications (work would need to be contracted out) and lacks the transparency required in other states.”
The industry-sponsored bill is designed to accelerate oil and gas development in Idaho despite unanswered questions about health and environmental impacts from gas exploration, drilling, extraction, and processing. Moreover, the industry has convinced the Idaho Legislature and those regulating the gas industry to allow it to force some landowners to allow gas drilling under their property if a certain percentage of their neighbors allow it. If there was any doubt of the bill’s intent, it was answered in the required “Statement of Purpose” section of the bill, which states in part, “This bill will have a positive impact on the general fund by allowing development of dozens of new wells and infrastructure over the next three years.”
Alma Hasse is on the board of Citizens Allied for Integrity and Accountability, which held a rally Feb. 19 on the Statehouse steps to oppose the bill. “Due process, all transparency, would be obliterated and the process of approving industry applications for the integration of private landowners into forced drilling pools would be transformed into a rubber stamp process if this bill passes,” she told Courthouse News Service. The “forced pooling” sought by the gas industry and supported by the state essentially allows oil and gas companies to force unwilling property owners to allow drilling, even if it damages their home and property value, mortgage, and homeowner’s insurance.
Thursday’s Senate vote was unusual in that it was hastily taken after 6 p.m. – after the Senate was scheduled to adjourn for the day. It was the only bill taken up, and as a result caught many of those concerned about the bill by surprise and unable get to the Capitol in time to attend the scant debate. Attention now focuses on the House, which has a history of looking favorably on Idaho’s young oil and gas industry even before the state has established an adequate regulatory framework to oversee the industry.
Joining Stennett in voting against the bill to speed up gas drilling in Idaho were Sens. Grant Burgoyne, Cherie Buckner-Webb, and Maryanne Jordan, all of Boise.