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Idaho Senate panel OKs gas-industry-backed measure

Associated Press Modified: March 2, 2012 at 7:15 pm •  Published: March 2, 2012
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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Oil and natural gas drillers convinced a Senate panel late Friday that their emerging industry deserves to be shielded from too much local government intrusion.

The Resources Committee Friday voted 6-3 to advance a contentious bill that leaves nearly all control over drilling to the state. The measure moves on to a floor vote after only one Republican, Sen. Dean Cameron of Rupert, opposed it.

Drillers including Snake River Oil and Gas, an exploration company, brought the measure to the Legislature amid concerns that new local rules recently passed in western Idaho's Washington County are too onerous for the industry. The panel's majority agreed the potential for a patchwork of laws left to the whim of locals could make it tougher for the infant industry to fulfill its economic promise.

"I would submit that the state already has complete and total authority over gas and oil," said Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot. "I find this bill to be very reasonable. I find it to be spot on."

According to the measure, which passed the House last month, no city or county could pass an ordinance, rule or standard making it impossible for a company to extract oil and gas from underground deposits.

It precludes local governments from requiring energy companies to get a conditional use permit for their activities, as is required for other types of projects.

Cameron, the bill's lone GOP foe, called this provision an unprecedented concession to the oil and gas industry that no other interest group in the state had so far extracted.

"By passing this bill the way we are, we're making it easier to locate an oil and gas well than any other facility," Cameron argued. "We're making it easier because they do not have to go through the same process."

Companies would still be subject to "reasonable local ordinance provisions" to protect public health, safety and order, and which protect the private property of others, according to the measure.

The measure required two days and some seven hours of heated testimony from both sides, with citizens primarily from western Idaho, the epicenter of exploration activity, weighing in.

Some were keen on its intent, including rancher Margaret Chipman, whose family has leased acres to companies looking for gas.

"This new industry is not just a benefit to our area, but our state will benefit from developing this resource," she said.

Others, however, accused the industry of bullying its way into the scene over the wishes of locals.

"Communities should have the right to determine what development is appropriate within their borders," Weiser resident Amanda Buchanan told the panel. "This bill gives one industry the ability to process and develop natural gas in any town wherever they want."

Buchanan and others' suspicion of industry throwing its weight around were heightened Wednesday, when an Idaho Association of Counties lobbyist, Kerry Ellen Elliott, suggested her group was told by the bill's House sponsors that counties would lose any local control at all if they refused to go along.

By Friday, however, Elliott's group had backtracked: The bill reflected a compromise — one that not all of its 44 members in Idaho agreed to, but one that was acceptable, Executive Director Dan Chadwick said in a letter to the Senate panel.

"Our association has a long-standing policy that supports local land use decision-making," Chadwick wrote. "Although the bill places limits on this authority, it is the association's position that this objective was met."


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