By SEAN ELLIS
NEW PLYMOUTH, Idaho — Now that seismic testing has proven what folks in this area have known for decades — there is a substantial amount of natural gas below them — farmers, ranchers and other landowners in this region are beginning to reap the benefits.
"You talk to any farmer or rancher whose family has been over there for a couple of generations, and everybody has stories of methane in their well water or bubbling up from a creek," John Foster, a spokesman for the Idaho Petroleum Council, said.
While it's been clear for many years that there is natural gas in that area of southwest Idaho, the infrastructure never existed to retrieve and transport it to market economically. But a major seismic exploration project by Snake River Oil and Gas last year is changing that.
The company says there are substantial natural gas deposits in an area known as a "play" that stretches from part of Canyon County through New Plymouth, Fruitland and Payette in Payette County and up into Weiser in Washington County.
It’s is beginning to drill wells and the gas will be transferred a major multi-state gas pipeline that passes near New Plymouth.
"I'm tickled to death they chose our area to explore," said Margaret Chipman, who own a ranching operation east of Weiser and signed an exploration agreement with Snake River. "We definitely need an economic boost in this area. We sure hope this industry can be that boost."
Snake River and its partner, Alta Mesa Holdings of Houston, have more than 100,000 acres of gas leases with landowners in the area.
Those landowners signed exploration agreements ranging from $10 to $40 an acre.
If a well is drilled on their property, they will be paid annual royalties equal to about one-eighth of the market value of the gas produced, minus the cost to transport it to market, said Mike Christian, a local attorney for Snake River that has overseen the leases.
Rep. Judy Boyle, a Republican rancher from Midvale in Washington County, says the standard royalty agreement could pay property owners as much as $300,000 a year, depending on natural gas prices.
"To me, this is like another crop," she says. "It's another source of income for those landowners."
Boyle said legislators passed strong statewide regulations that protect the environment and landowners, but not everyone is convinced.
A 60-member group called Weiser River Resource Council is pushing for local ordinances addressing drilling that protect the environment, public infrastructure and property rights.
"We support strong local ordinances that mitigate some of these potential negative effects" that can be associated with gas drilling, WRRC co-chair Amanda Buchanan said. "It's not an opposition to drilling. It's a desire for things to be done responsibly."
Buchanan said that while state law prevents local governments from regulating the technical aspects of gas drilling, it does allow them to create ordinances that protect public health and safety and property rights.
"I don't mind people making money but I do want to make sure they're treated fairly and their neighbors are treated fairly," she said.