BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Local communities that want more say over where oil and natural gas wells can be drilled in Idaho won a victory Friday when senators agreed to consider changes to a bill that would have put most decisions over the industry in the hands of the state.
The 17-17 vote on a motion to amend the measure came just after noon, forcing Republican Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who presides over the chamber, to intervene and break the tie.
Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, argued changes are needed because local governments' interests are the ones that would be forced to live with wells, dehydrators and other facilities associated with gas extraction.
"I don't see a whole lot of room in there for the consideration of the sensibilities and concerns of the local community," Toryanski said. "While, generally, I like this bill; specifically, I think it can be improved in the area of public participation."
The close vote shows how divided the chamber is on the issue, which has arisen as natural gas explorers have flocked, in particular, to fields in western Idaho in a bid to strike it rich in a state that's long been overlooked in the scramble for new energy resources.
Washington County, located at the epicenter of the discoveries, has passed its own rules that the industry says are too onerous.
Consequently, companies like Arkansas-based Snake River Oil and Gas enlisted House leaders including Speaker Lawerence Denney and Rep. Judy Boyle, both Republicans from Midvale, to help them craft a measure that puts limits on local intervention.
Their bill, which has already passed the House, would forbid cities and counties from passing any ordinance, rule or standard making it impossible for a company to extract oil and gas from underground deposits.
It also precludes local governments from requiring energy companies to get a conditional use permit for their activities, as counties or municipalities often require for other construction projects.
Sen. John Tippets, the bill's Republican sponsor from Montpelier, argued there was nothing that could be added to improve the bill, saying there was still plenty of opportunity for people with concerns about individual projects to weigh in during public comment periods with the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, whose members include Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter.
"If we open this up to the land-use planning process, we may never see any drilling in the state," Tippets said, before the vote. "There's always going to be people who want to prohibit it. This bill achieves the right balance."
After the vote, the Senate adjourned for the weekend, so the earliest amendments could be considered would be next week.
Foes and backers of the bill offered passionate debate.
Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, argued keeping local governments from meddling too deeply in the development of potentially lucrative resources in Idaho was necessary to help right America's energy industry, which he said has for too long been hampered by obstructionists.
"We've got a pathetic energy policy in the United States," Siddoway said. "We all stand by and say 'Drill, drill, drill.' Now, 'we're saying, 'Don't drill in my backyard.' It wouldn't bother me one bit if we had an oil well right here at the bottom of the steps of the Capitol, if the city of Boise would just make us landscape it and put it under ground to make it pretty when we got done."
Meanwhile, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert and foe of the measure, said the possibility that some oil and gas exploration company would target resources near a church or in the middle of town meant that locals needed to be included in the process of siting such projects.
Siddoway's vision of urban oil wells in Boise wasn't one he shared, Cameron said.
"That may be attractive to him, it's not attractive to me," Cameron said. "I don't understand the fear in making sure local residents have some level of input."