BOISE, Idaho — Natural gas wildcatters aim to ask lawmakers to stop cities and counties from passing laws meant to halt development of Idaho's emerging oil and natural gas fields, foreshadowing a 2012 legislative fight over how much power local governments should have in their own backyards.
An environmental group, the Idaho Conservation League, also fears the proposal could weaken groundwater protections.
Snake River Oil & Gas, which is exploring for gas in western Idaho, is developing the measure after Washington County proposed an ordinance with strict size limits, expensive bonds, multi-million-dollar insurance policies and restrictions on well locations, among other things.
Idaho already has temporary rules governing the industry, with lawmakers next year set to make them permanent. John Peiserich, a lawyer for Snake River's Arkansas-based parent company, said Tuesday that adding a patchwork of onerous new county regulations could doom a nascent Idaho industry before it's even off the ground.
"If you were to allow local jurisdictions to interfere in a way that affects operations, you're going to contribute to the wasting of the resource," said Peiserich. "We like a consistent regulatory environment."
He's working on the measure with the Idaho Petroleum Council, which represents wildcatters like Snake River as well as oilfield services company Halliburton.
According to an early draft, "an ordinance, rule, resolution, requirement or standard of a city, county or other political subdivision of this state shall not prohibit, either actually or operationally, and shall not frustrate the siting, construction or operation of facilities" with state approval.
It's found a sympathetic ear with western Idaho lawmakers eager to protect private property rights.
"As a property owner in Washington County, I don't think our taxpayers can afford to create a whole new layer of bureaucracy and permitting," said Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale. "That's for the state to do."
But Kerry Ellen Elliott, an Idaho Association of Counties lobbyist, said one of her group's main concerns is that such a measure doesn't strike at the heart of local control.
"Our primary consideration is to adhere to the policies of our association, which promote and support local decision making as far as siting goes," Elliott said. "We would like to hold to that."
Amanda Buchanan, a resident of Washington County who has become a vocal drilling critic, contends the bill is another sign of how energy companies could run roughshod over locals' interests.
"It just seems so shortsighted to allow this industry to come in and do what they want," Buchanan said.
Idaho had long been considered a void in the oil and gas world.
But in 2010, Denver-based Bridge Resources, a small exploration company, reported promising discoveries in an ancient lakebed a mile beneath the surface of Payette County, to Washington County's south.
In response, Idaho officials scrambled to develop new state rules governing such operations, including hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that some fear could harm a region's groundwater.
Simultaneously, Washington County began pursuing its own rules for natural gas projects and accompanying facilities that include storage tanks, pipelines, dehydration plants and roads.
"Our county is unique, we already have two contaminants to our groundwater, nitrates and arsenic, we have some very high water tables naturally occurring, and I feel we need to be more oriented toward the situations in each county," said Jeri Soulier, a member of the local planning and zoning committee.
Though Soulier's committee unanimously recommended adopting the new rules in November, the Washington County Commission has so far held off on a vote after warnings from industry.
If Washington County's proposal were enacted, contends Suzanne Budge, the Idaho Petroleum Council's lobbyist, it could sound the death knell for an industry that promises good paying jobs and revenue for public schools.
"Imposing restrictions far beyond those contemplated by the state (or by other states where a healthy oil and gas industry exists) sends a signal to the industry that its investment in the community not only is unwanted but is actively discouraged," Budge told county officials in a recent letter.
The Idaho Conservation League has also raised concerns the draft measure tinkers with Idaho groundwater protections.
According to an early version, water found in or near natural gas or oil deposits would no longer be classified as groundwater.
"They said they'd abide by the rules to protect groundwater. And now, they want to change the definition of groundwater," said Justin Hayes, an activist. "We don't have really great science about all the aquifers in our state. It would be a tremendous mistake to allow someone to contaminate one and only later realize they were connected."
Peiserich, Snake River Oil & Gas' lawyer, counters his company is drilling for gas thousands of feet below where western Idaho draws its drinking water. Layers of impermeable bedrock and robust well casings will block any chance of contamination, he said.
Peiserich added he's working with Department of Environmental Quality Director Toni Hardesty on a new version that would leave Idaho's groundwater laws unchanged.
Hardesty's office confirmed talks with the company.