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No Public Input?

Will citizens have a say on gas drilling permits?

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Take a look at the working draft of rules for oil and gas exploration in Idaho and you'll see that they're covered with red ink. Red signifies additions or changes, so considering that the last time anyone dusted off the rules was a couple of decades ago, red ink is certainly appropriate.

The rules are catching up with reality. Natural gas exploration in Idaho has been in the headlines for more than a year, ever since Bridge Resources began drilling in Payette County (BW, News, "Hell of a Well," July 14, 2010). With some successful gas wells and plans to "frack" a few others (BW, News, "Getting Mini-Fracked, April 27, 2011), Bridge's plans have gotten a lot more attention from the media, Payette citizens and those who oversee such operations.

While negotiated rule-making is not scintillating (BW, News, "A is for Act," June 8, 2011), there's plenty at stake. That's why people representing Bridge, the oil and gas industry, the Department of Environmental Quality and Idaho's Department of Water Resources are all at the rule-making table with red pencils at hand. Also at the table are representatives of Idaho Conservation League--nonprofit advocates for air, land and water protection.

"We're not against this industry," Justin Hayes, ICL's program director told Citydesk. "We're not opposed to the drilling of natural gas in Idaho. If it's going to go forward, it has to be done well."

But Hayes was more than a little frustrated on July 20, when the topic turned to drilling permits.

"We started talking about the drilling application process, and I asked about public input," said Hayes.

Eric Wilson, Mineral Program Manager for the Idaho Department of Lands (overseeing the rule-making process) said his department would not propose any change to the current permitting process.

"We're not recommending anything different or anything new to the rules that have been in place for quite some time now," Wilson told Citydesk.

But Hayes was having none of it.

"I think that's an intentional dive," said Hayes. "When Eric said, 'We're not changing anything,' well, that's code for them continuing to exclude the public."

When Wilson began the negotiated rule-making process in June, he said that Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (who chairs Idaho's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission) didn't want to see "any bells and whistles." Simply put, if there wasn't something that was flat-out required in Idaho statutes, then the Department of Lands would be hard-pressed to include a new requirement. But Hayes said there has been plenty of precedence for involving the public.

"The DEQ, Health and Welfare and countless other agencies solicit public comment on applications so that things don't happen in a weird vacuum," said Hayes.

More red ink is expected over the next few weeks, but Hayes isn't the most optimistic person in the room.

"It just feels like decisions have already been made," said Hayes. "And I'm afraid that this company [Bridge] is going to get exactly what it wants."

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