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A is for Act (Idaho's Oil and Gas Conservation Act)

Writing new rules while trying to satisfy everyone.

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It's a pretty good bet that Eric Wilson didn't have The Sound of Music on his mind when he stood before a few dozen early risers gathered in room WW 53 of the Idaho Statehouse on June 2. But a chuckle echoed among the attendees when Wilson, mineral program manager for the Idaho Department of Lands, began the session with a familiar phrase.

"Let's start at the very beginning," he said.

Right on cue, one of the attendees responded, "A very good place to start."

The line got a pretty good laugh for the opening act of negotiations to write new rules governing Idaho gas and oil exploration. In fact, instead of musical theater, the exercise had more in common with Sesame Street.

"Let's start with the A's," said Wilson. "A is for act. The Idaho Oil and Gas Conservation Act."

And thus began the arduous task of writing a makeshift dictionary before authoring Idaho's newest rules. Rule-making is not for the easily distracted. The by-the-letter, word-for-word marathon caused more than one attendee to close his or her eyes and presumably daydream about being anywhere but a practically empty Statehouse on a beautiful day in June. But the importance of the day long session, the first of eight, wasn't lost on anyone. Nothing short of protecting Idaho's greatest resource was at stake.

"I have one main goal," said Justin Hayes, program director of Idaho Conservation League. "That Idaho has rules protective of the people's groundwater."

Across the aisle, literally and figuratively, sat representatives from Bridge Resources, the firm that began natural gas exploration in Payette County more than a year ago. In fact, Bridge's activities, particularly its desire to "frack" some of its wells, added urgency to the rule negotiations. Bridge calls its process "mini-fracking," a scaled-down version of the controversial process of shooting highly pressurized liquids and sand down its wells to enhance gas flows. While fracking--or its more common term fracturing--won't be fully defined or debated until future sessions, the topic bubbled to the surface on June 2.

"This process is all about negotiation and resolution," Wilson cautioned the participants. "And I'm sure you know which issue in particular I'm talking about."

Wilson was talking about item No. 55 from a very long list of rules: well treatments, including fracturing.

"We're looking for stringent limitations on using hazardous substances," said Hayes.

"We'll first have to define what is hazardous," Wilson said.

"It strikes me that the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has a role to play here," Hayes responded. "We really want the DEQ and the Idaho Department of Water Resources to have defined roles to help oversee which fluids could be used."

"I don't care how it's done," said Ed Hagen, DEQ senior groundwater hydrogeologist. "We just want to make sure groundwater quality is protected, and I think there's a lot of different ways to do that."

Hagen said DEQ went through a similar exercise of negotiated rule-making for Idaho mine operations several years ago that didn't go so smoothly.

"Line by line," said Hagen. "That took us two years. And we still had to start over."

Hagen wasn't overly optimistic about what lies ahead for gas and oil rules.

"I think we may be heading in the same direction with this," said Hagen. "Because, honestly, we're looking at an industry that has the potential of degrading the environment."

Consequence to the environment is exactly what concerned Scott Woodbury, who recently retired after serving 25 years as staff attorney for the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

"It's very difficult to try to remedy a water resource once it's been contaminated," said Woodbury. "If you don't participate in the rule-making now, it will be very difficult to unravel later. You'll probably end up in court."

On the same side of the aisle as the team from Bridge sat David Hawk, former energy and natural resource director for the J.R. Simplot Company. Hawk currently represents other parties interested in Idaho natural gas exploration. Hawk expressed concern that when the general public weighs in on the proposed rules sometime in mid-October, there will be no time for rebuttals.

"I'm concerned about possible allegations raised at the public hearing," said Hawk. "What's to prevent less-than-scientific thoughts being expressed? What's to prevent a comment being made without it being checked or challenged?"

"Welcome to my world," deadpanned Wilson.

He laid out a timetable that includes seven more negotiated rule-making sessions, an Aug. 16 presentation to the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (comprised of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and Idaho's statewide elected officials), a mid-October public hearing, and a Nov. 25 deadline to submit to the Idaho Legislature. The 2012 Legislature will get the final say on the rules next winter.

"We still don't know how all this ties together," said Democratic Rep. Donna Pence of Gooding, the only lawmaker to attend the June 2 session. Pence is a member of the House Resources and Conservation Committee. "It's not like we have a lot of experience drilling these types of wells."

Meanwhile, Wilson will guide lawmakers, scientists, engineers and citizens through the maze of rule-making for the next two months. The soft-spoken minerals expert may well have one of the most important roles in state government this summer, crafting new rules on what may quickly become Idaho's newest and possibly most controversial industry.

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