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Idaho Now Open to Natural Gas "Fracking"

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The Payette River in southwestern Idaho is home to Idaho’s first exploration into natural gas hydrofracturing. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. The Payette River in southwestern Idaho is home to Idaho’s first exploration into natural gas hydrofracturing. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Payette County may become Idaho's pilot project in natural gas hydrofracturing


For better or worse, western Idaho is home to one of the new “gas booms.” Some people have the potential of getting rich, but the Boise Weekly is reporting that a lot of residents are watching this new development with some trepidation, as Colorado-based Bridge Resources is set to “frack” four natural gas wells in Payette County. 

That trepidation is not without cause: residents are outraged throughout the 33 states that are currently part of this new boom in natural gas production. Grandmothers are finding out that they’ve been bathing their grandchildren in arsenic-laden water days after a well drilling. Aquifers and springs are contaminated with radioactive heavy metals and neurotoxic chemicals. Earthquakes are rumbling the ground due to subsidence. The “blow out” noises from gas compressor stations roar at levels that are hazardous to health and many of the compressor stations act as mini refineries and lace the air with neurotoxins like benzene at rates 100 times the allowed EPA limit.

These developments are by-products of a new technology called hydrofracturing which the industry labels as an unconventional gas production technique. Hydrofracturing, or hydrofracking for short, is able to tap into gas plays that were previously uneconomical to produce. 

Payette County is far down on the western side of Idaho, snugged up against the state of Oregon; so far south it’s almost a seperate state from North Idaho. It’s the smallest county in the state, with only about 400 square miles of land mass, and it lies about 400 miles south of Sandpoint; Seattle is closer to us than the “big cities” of Payette County, Fruitland and Payette.

Payette County is not close, but the beginning of hydrofracturing in our state begs the question: does North Idaho have gas formations that were previously uneconomical to produce? Do we need to keep our eyes out for landmen coming to our communities and asking to buy our mineral rights? Is this something that us folks here in North Idaho need to be watching out for, or is this reporter just digging into bedrock? 

Maybe, maybe not.

There are two pieces of evidence that suggest there has been speculation in the past about gas or oil in northern Idaho.

Firstly, two of the parcels acquired by the Forest Service in the Hope-Sagle land exchange had gas/oil rights held by an unknown third party. Jim Brady, from the Idaho Department of Lands’s office in Sandpoint, says this type of exchange “is common in oil and gas country.” Is northern Idaho oil and gas country? “No, not necessarily” responded Mr. Brady. And Mr. Brady would know best: the Idaho Dept. of Lands issues permits for exploration and he states that currently there are no permits issued for the Panhandle. 

But the Idaho Dept. of Lands does not monitor leasing of mineral rights, so finding out if there are “landmen” buying oil and gas leases from Pandhandle residents is difficult.

Secondly, there is a map of historic oil and gas wells in Idaho that shows that Couer d’Alene had two exploratory oil/gas wells drilled in the late 1920s. Bill Phillips, research geologist at the state of Idaho’s Geological Survey (the folks who created the map), says that during that time there was a lot of speculation that gas and oil might be found in the Panhandle. As far as Mr. Phillips knows there was no oil or gas produced at the Coeur d’Alene wells.

“If we are talking about North Idaho, including the area between Moscow and the Canadian border, then as far as we’re aware there aren’t any prospective rocks for gas or oil,” said Mr. Phillips from his office in Moscow. “Most rock formations are granite or metamorphic... the prospects don’t seem to be there.”

Mr. Phillips explained a bit about the geology of oil and gas: basically, oil and gas are found in sedimentary rock or shale as remnants of plants and creatures that have decomposed into an organic matter (containing lots of hydrocarbons) and heated at just the right temperature for just the right amount of time. “If you continue at that [required] temperature, the hydrocarbons change their character and gradually become the petroleum,” explained Mr. Phillips, giving a hypothetical example of making oil and gas in a lab using a beaker of organic material and a hot plate. “And if you continue to cook it the oil will become tar, but the gas will still be there. And after a while it will be all gone.”

And basically that’s what happened with the metamorphic rock­—it underwent so much pressure and heat that the hydrocarbons broke up and became constituents of different minerals in the metamorphic rocks. But, since basalt rock is volcanic and creates a layer, it can leave beneath it gas and oil such as the formations in the Columbia Basin, although according to current evidence any small and isolated gas formations in the Panhandle are “immature” and do not contain a commercial quality of natural gas.

There are two places in Idaho that have undergone the conditions favorable to the creation of mature natural gas deposits: western Idaho and southeastern Idaho. Southeastern Idaho has lots of marine rocks, but there has been so much folding and faulting that there are no commercial quantities of natural gas available. 

A Freedom of Information Act Request to the Bureau of Land Management’s Oil and Gas division shows that all of the BLM land that is leased out for oil/gas purposes is in this area of the state, but there are no active permits for exploration of production for these leases, and the only action on the leases are a constant selling of lease ownership back and forth between the involved companies.

The other area of the state with oil/gas is the Payette basin which, Mr. Phillips explained, “has a thick pile of young sediments, terrestrial sediments, and seems to have lots of plant material and organic material where the current [gas] discoveries are found.”

Speaking of geology, earthquake activity is also an issue when it comes to the hydrofracturing process of obtaining natural gas. Arkansas is a state that wasn’t known for earthquakes before this new wave of gas drilling, but in recent years there have been over 800. After a quake of 4.7 hit the state last March, regulators called for a moratorium on gas fracking.

Scott Ausbrooks, a geologist with the Arkansas Geological Survey stated in the Wall Street Journal that “It is confirmed and established that injection wells can induce seismicity.” The earthquakes are caused by the subsidence—so much rock is removed by the drilling process, and the remaining bedrock is cracked by the hydrofracturing technique, which causes the previously still solid rock to begin moving amongst each other in an attempt to settle into a stable location, creating earthquakes in the process.

Idaho, many are surprised to learn, is listed as the fifth highest in the nation for earthquakes. Payette County, the state’s “pilot project” for gas fracking, lies about 50 miles west of the Long Valley Fault Zone, described by Idaho’s Bureau of Homeland Security as “notable for earthquake swarms.” They go on to point out “about ten percent of major earthquakes in the western United States are preceded by foreshock swarms.”

Could a “man-made” earthquake set off a large quake, like the series of quakes that rippled through central Idaho in the early 1980s, killing at least two people near Challis? It’s possible, Mr. Phillips says, but not probable.

“Geothermal also has risks of earthquakes, Switzerland being the most famous example... [but] no one has indicated that large earthquakes [can be set off by these smaller quakes],” explained Mr. Phillips.

“Yes, various kinds of the new technologies can produce earthquakes, but they don’t seem to be a concern for setting off larger earthquakes.”

Fingers crossed.

For more about earthquakes in Idaho, see here.

For more information about gas drilling and production check out EarthworksAction.org.

For more information about how industry documents show that the new natural gas boom is akin to the Enron scandal, check out the leaked documents and investigative reports by the New York Times (see here.)

And for information about gas drilling in western Idaho, check out the Boise Weekly. (Boise Weekly: No Sale, Boise Weekly: A is for Act,  Boise Weekly: Getting Mini-Fracked)


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Author info

Nastassja Noell Nastassja Noell is a freelance journalist whose interests include forest issues, agriculture, regional economics, environmental health, and ecology. If you have ideas for an article, contact [email protected]

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Homepage, Headlines, fracking, hydrofracturing, Payette County, Bridge Resources, Borah Peak earthquake, Long Valley fault zone, natural gas drilling, Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security, Boise Weekly, Hope-Sagle Land Exchange, Jim Brady, Idaho Department of Lands, Bill Phillips, Scott Ausbrooks, Arkansas Geological Survey, Idaho's Geological Survey

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