- Adam Rosenlund
Something unique—some might even call it historic—happened at Eagle City Hall on the evening of April 2.
"It was pretty thrilling," said Shelley Brock, an Eagle resident and board member of the Eagle-based Citizens Allied for Integrity and Accountability. "I have a personal, vested interest in Eagle. I've lived here since I was a kid."
Brock stood before the City of Eagle Planning and Zoning Commission as an advocate. She and a growing number of Eagle residents argued it's time for the city to draw a line in the sand when it comes to oil/gas exploration, and particularly fracking. That isn't so unusual—the surprise was that P & Z commissioners agreed whole-heartedly.
"It was about three years ago when my husband and I drove over to Gem County to buy some feed for our sheep, and we stumbled upon seismic testing that was going on in that region. I started asking more about it and learned that there was a real possibility of seeing drilling and fracking where all those beautiful orchards are," said Brock. "And then I got my hands on some maps showing where exploration companies had been leasing land, including land underneath people's homes. When I found out that there were some leases in the northwest Eagle Foothills where we live, it became very personal."
Idaho has a bumpy, controversial and recent history with gas exploration. In a series of exclusive reports in 2011, Boise Weekly exposed the financial troubles of Bridge Resources, and when Bridge began selling off its assets, Snake River Oil and Gas and Texas-based Alta Mesa Holdings started snapping up leases. This triggered a flurry of drilling activity in 2012, followed by seismic tests and even more land lease negotiations. Meanwhile, lobbyists representing the exploration companies began flexing their muscle at the Idaho Statehouse, and it didn't take long for the Idaho Legislature to begin instituting new rules making it nearly impossible for local municipalities to prohibit drilling operations in their backyards.
Title 47, Chapter 3, of Idaho Statutes, which pertains to "geologic information, and prevention of waste" at or near oil and gas wells, was recently revised by the legislature to restrict any city or county from "prohibiting the extraction of oil and gas." However, the law also stipulates the extraction "may be subject to reasonable local ordinance provisions...which protect public health, public safety, public order or which prevent harm to public infrastructure or degradation of the value, use and enjoyment of private property."
In that provision lies the daylight for Brock and her contingent of Eagle residents, who see it as a way for their city to craft an ordinance that prioritizes health and safety over profits.
"The City [of Eagle] has no power but for what the legislature gives it," City Attorney Cherese McLain told the commission. "But I would point you to the words 'reasonable local provisions.' "
"Are there any existing wells in this area?" asked P&Z Commissioner Derek Smith.
"Not that I'm aware of," said McLain.
The absence of existing wells didn't deter citizens and members of CAIA from packing City Hall. One by one, they stood before the commission to voice opposition to the idea of drilling and fracking within city limits.
"I really feel this is something we don't need here," said Richard Boozel, Eagle resident and Democratic candidate for the Idaho State Senate.
"We moved here six years ago from Michigan and Flint has horrible water. We certainly don't want that here," added Lorrie Argabrite.
"If I see on the horizon that our property values go into the ditch, I'm outta here," said Isaac Hasselblad, owner of Hasselblad Lumber.
Homeowners who live in nearby Payette County, where oil and gas exploration towers already dot the landscape, came to pass on warnings to Eagle about their own experiences.
"I live in Fruitland, and I can tell you that Payette County didn't do its homework in setting up any rules," said Julie Fugate. "I now live between two active drill sites. We're gravely concerned about the decrease of our property values. Seriously, that could be your reality."
Soon after, Shelley Brock handed out packets of papers to the P&Z commissioners and the city attorney. She had already gone through McLain's first draft of a proposed ordinance on oil and gas exploration in Eagle, and had a number of suggestions to tighten it. The first zeroed in on a section of the ordinance titled "purpose."
"Why are the words 'economical remunerative' in there?" asked Brock.
The initial draft of the ordinance included the following language:
"It is necessary and appropriate to adopt reasonable requirements for Oil and Gas resource development so that these resources can be obtained in a manner that is economically remunerative, and that minimizes the potential impact on the residents of the City of Eagle."
Simply put, it gave equal weight to the economic fortunes of oil and gas drilling companies as the well-being of citizens.
"Nowhere in Idaho code is there a requirement that cities and counties must assure operators will 'profit lucratively' from operations in their jurisdictions," said Brock. "The city's duty is to protect Eagle residents and their property."
Brock also suggested:
• The elimination of exemptions for "trade secrets" when it comes time for applicants to disclose the chemicals they'll use on any site.
• Baseline water quality testing prior to drilling, to be conducted by an independent third party at the applicant's expense.
• Automatic emergency shut-off valves on drilling equipment and post-extraction facilities, with access provided to city officials and first responders in case of a fire or explosion.
• An indemnification provision, signed by the applicant, in addition to general liability insurance in the amount of no less than $15 million per occurrence.
• A requirement that oil and gas wells and processing facilities be set back no less than half a mile from the nearest property line and a quarter of a mile from any highway.
• Allowing oil or gas post-extraction facilities only in heavy industrial zoning districts.
When the public comment period wrapped up, the P&Z meeting had stretched well past the three-hour mark.
As McLain feverishly took note of all of the suggestions, she turned to the commissioners and asked, "Which of these should we include in the updated draft?"
Commissioner Steve Guerber held up Brock's list of suggestions, looked at the attorney and said, "[I] think you should be looking at this. It contains reasonable expectations to make sure that things that have happened elsewhere don't happen here."
Acting Commission Chair Theresa Johnson agreed.
"As for that phrase 'economic remuneration,' we wouldn't have that for any other business coming to Eagle, so we really don't need that in here," said Johnson.
McLain told the commission that she would have an updated drafted ordinance for them to consider at their next meeting, scheduled for Monday, April 16. Johnson also decided to keep the public hearing officially open, meaning more public testimony on the proposed ordinance could be heard at the April 16 session.
"I must say, this has been one of the best pieces of input I've heard in many years," said Guerber, congratulating the attendees. "You people really came prepared tonight."
Speaking to Boise Weekly the following day, Brock said that was music to her ears.
"My first thought when I first found out about the oil and gas exploration was, 'This is the richest, most powerful industry in the world and there's no stopping them. We'll have to sell our place and move.' But then it struck me that this is happening all over the country and across the planet," said Brock. "I saw my precious grandsons' faces and knew that I had to take a stand for them, so they wouldn't have to fight this same battle in the very near future."
Still, Johnson cautioned at the conclusion of the meeting that her commission wouldn't have the ultimate say on the ordinance.
"Just a reminder," she said, "the Planning and Zoning Commission is a recommending-only body. The city council will have the final say."