Idaho House and Senate committees have approved new rules that will allow fracking, a controversial method of extracting natural gas that has been used in other states but was previously banned in Idaho. Though the rules include environmental safeguards, the Idaho Conservation League and some legislators say they do not go far enough to protect drinking water from toxic chemicals.
The rules were drawn up by the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and approved last month by the House Resources and Conservation Committee and on Monday by the Senate Resources and Environment Committee. They do not need approval from the full Legislature, and will take effect at the close of the legislative session this spring.
Snake River Oil and Gas, a subsidiary of Arkansas-based Weiser-Brown Oil Co., has leased roughly 30,000 acres of land in the state, mostly in the southwestern corner, with the intent of drilling for natural gas.
Snake River Oil and Gas Manager Richard Brown said the potential for tapping natural gas could bring jobs to the state.
Snake River Oil and Gas has hired 20 employees so far, and Brown said he plans on hiring many more.
"It all matters what success we have," he said. "Potentially, this could number jobs in the hundreds. If very successful, in five years we could have 500 to 1,000 jobs."
Brown said his family has been visiting Sun Valley since the 1950s, and had strong ties to the state—in fact, his sister Lou Ann Brown Terry is chair of the St. Luke's Wood River Foundation.
"My father had always wanted to establish an oil and gas industry in Idaho," he said.
But State Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, who sits on the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, said the risks may not be worth the potential economic benefits. She said she wished safety regulations had been stronger.
"It will help some, but most of the constituents we spoke to are more concerned about the health risks than the potential economic benefits," she said.
How fracking works
The health concerns come from the chemicals used in fracking. According to Snake River Oil and Gas consulting geologist David Hawk, fracking companies start by drilling a deep hole in the ground through which a pipeline is run. The well is filled with cement to prevent leaks from contaminating nearby ground.
A slurry of sand, water and chemicals is pumped at high pressure through the pipe, creating "fracks," or fractures, in rock below the pipe that open passageways for natural gas to flow easily to the well.
The chemicals in the slurry are necessary to turn the solution to a gel that keeps the sand suspended. Other chemicals are used to prevent pipe corrosion, break down the suspension and allow the fluid to flow out of the well, leaving sand in place to hold open the fractures.
The main concern with fracking, according to Idaho Conservation League Program Director Justin Hayes, is that chemicals used can be carcinogenic. If the chemicals follow fractures in the rock and leak into an aquifer, groundwater could be severely contaminated.
"Like with anything, things can either go not wrong or they can go horribly wrong," Hayes said.
Under the new rules, arsenic, benzene, radioactive materials and other dangerous chemicals can be used while fracking.
Hayes argued that the state should limit companies to only using food-grade chemicals in order to limit the risk of contamination.
But Hawk said the regulation would be pointless as there is no chance of the company's wells contaminating groundwater in southwestern Idaho.
"No one is talking about using anything that isn't a household item, period," he said. "No one is talking about using any benzenes or anything."
Hawk said the solution is 96 percent water with 3 percent sand, glass or plastic and 1 percent guar gum and other chemicals.
As to allegations that companies will use carcinogens, Hawk said the danger is exaggerated.
"What isn't a cancer-causing chemical?" he said. "If you eat the wax on your skis, you will probably die of something."
Another objection conservationists have to fracking is the disposal of excess fluid that burbles up from wells once fractures are created.
"You have to put so much pressure in the ground that when you turn the pumps off, a lot of [the fluid] goes back up the pipe," Hayes said. "How you dispose of this toxic sludge is the problem."
Hayes said that sometimes in other states, the fluid is simply disposed of in hastily dug pits. But that method is ineffective when it comes to preventing water contamination.
"They literally get a backhoe and scoop a hole in the ground," he said. "Digging a deep hole and burying something is not a great way of disposing [it]. Just because you can't see it anymore doesn't mean you have disposed of it."
But Stennett said disposal regulations are one of the strongest points of Idaho's rules. Due to already existing water regulations, companies that use fracking will be required to dispose of their excess chemicals in specially lined pits.
"A lot of the pieces of the rules hold us to a really high standard," she said.
The pits would be lined with a rubber membrane similar to that used for disposal of mine tailings, meant to limit groundwater contamination. Hayes said that's one part of the rules that the Idaho Conservation League does approve of.
Stennett said she's looking for ways to further restrict the chemicals used in fracking as well as place more accountability on the companies that would use this method. She said she is seeking co-sponsors for a bill to be introduced this legislative session that would limit fracking chemicals to only food-grade compounds.
"I don't know how much legs that will get at this point, but we need to start that conversation," she said.
She also announced her plans to lobby for the use of tracer chemicals in fracking fluid, which could solve the problem of industry giants' denying their roles in groundwater contamination.
"Can we put a finger absolutely on that chemical that went and tainted that well, or that drilling was the cause for that earthquake?" she said. "No, we can't. [But] if we started putting tracers in the solution and they come out in a well, you can immediately say, OK, the industry caused that."
Hawk said Snake River Oil and Gas would do everything it can to prevent groundwater contamination. Hawk is a former Simplot and Intermountain Gas Co. employee, and said he would never do anything to harm the state in which he was raised.
"Do people make mistakes? Yes," he said. "But Idaho is the greatest place in the world. We will not foul this place up."
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com