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Idaho Gas Drillers And Counties Reach Controversial Agreement

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A group representing Idaho counties and a group representing companies interested in tapping natural gas in the state announced an agreement Sunday on legislation they plan to introduce into the Idaho Legislature next month.

The Idaho Association of Counties and the Idaho Petroleum Council said the guidelines will allow counties some control over natural gas development, while natural gas wildcatters will have a clearer path to tapping fields.

But a conservation group said the agreement appears to reduce local control over industries by allowing state lawmakers to create rules that counties and cities wouldn't be able to exceed with their own ordinances.

The proposed legislation was not released, but the news release said the legislation would allow local governments to create regulations involving exploration and processing as long as the rules didn't prevent companies from building infrastructure.

The groups also said the proposed legislation would let local governments pass their own ordinances regulating the industry as long as those ordinances don't conflict with state law.

"Local siting and operational issues are important to our members and to the people of Idaho," Dan Chadwick, executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties, said in a statement. "This consensus legislation promises counties and their residents that their unique insight will be an important part of our state's growing natural gas industry."

"This agreement is an example of what happens when reasonable people have a chance to sit down and forge compromise," said Suzanne Budge, executive director of the Idaho Petroleum Council.

Idaho officials have been scrambling to develop new rules after natural gas discoveries in 2010 in an ancient lake bed a mile beneath the surface of Payette County, to Washington County's south.

Natural gas wildcatters have been concerned about cities and counties passing laws that could halt development of Idaho's emerging oil and natural gas fields. A main concern is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that some fear could harm a region's groundwater that some rural residents rely on.

"It strikes me from this press release that the counties can't veto anything," Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League told The Associated Press on Sunday. "Which leads me to believe that the oil and gas industry can get whatever they want, and the counties will just have to take it. Setting all the rhetoric aside, it still sounds like, in the end, counties cannot object to proposals that they don't like."

Snake River Oil & Gas, which is exploring for gas in western Idaho, helped develop the legislation 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.

"We are committed to Idaho, and want to make sure the public officials and citizens they represent are completely comfortable with our industry and our work," said Richard Brown, owner of Snake River Oil & Gas, in the statement released Sunday. "This agreement provides assurances for citizens and certainty for businesses, and is a model for other states to follow."

Industry officials said last year they were working on the legislation with the Idaho Petroleum Council. An early draft of that legislation said that "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.

Hayes said it was unclear to him why the Idaho Association of Counties would back legislation that appeared to limit the power of counties in favor of state control. But he said the backing of the association could sway some state lawmakers toward approving the legislation.

"Clearly, a compromise like this makes an easy way out for legislators who had been conflicted," he said.

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