Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Land Board justifies worries about state oil and gas regulation

Last week, Gov. Butch Otter signed a bill that stripped local governments of control over oil and gas drilling operations and placed it with the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Initially, the 44 counties weren't thrilled with the idea, but a lot of lobbying by the oil and gas industry, which didn't want to deal with different sets of zoning ordinances, swept the bill to approval.

The bill's supporters said counties and cities would be at a disadvantage when dealing with oil and gas companies because their operations are highly technical and most counties and cities don't have the resources necessary to address the issues that exploration and drilling present. And, unlike other operations that require locally controlled permits, oil and gas operations will probably pop up in more than one area as a result of today's natural gas boom.

Even so, counties and cities didn't leave the Capitol reassured that the state will not run roughshod over local concerns. Their unease is justified.

Under Idaho law, the oil and gas commission is just another name for the Idaho Land Board. Its members, which include the governor, the secretary of state, the attorney general, the superintendent of public instruction and the controller, simply act as the oil and gas commission.

The Land Board has a reputation for insensitivity to local concerns. A recent board decision illustrates the problem that now powerless counties may face when the oil and gas industry comes calling.

It recently granted a five-year renewal for a gravel-mining lease that allows heavy equipment to work in the bed of the Salmon River south of Riggins. It renewed it despite the value of the river's salmon and steelhead fishery, despite the value of river-dependent rafting businesses and despite 430 letters opposing renewal.

The lease has been in force for 55 years. Operations began long before the science was in on how detrimental riverbed disturbances are to spawning salmon and steelhead—both endangered species.

The lease also somehow sidesteps the protections of the federal Endangered Species Act for salmon and steelhead.

As it is wont to do, the Land Board single-mindedly clung to its constitutional mandate to manage state lands for the maximum long-term benefit to public schools. In other words, cold cash talked. Fishing and rafting were left speechless.

The lease extension allows bulldozers and loaders to operate within the river at the same time chinook spawn every fall. But what's a little siltation and a few smothered fish eggs when there's cash for schools on the line?

When it comes to the Land Board's regulating oil and gas, counties and cities should be worried. Very worried.

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