- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - The Idaho Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on Thursday began the process of writing new rules for the oil and gas industry with input from the public under a new law aimed at speeding up energy production.

The commission on a 4-0 vote set in motion a process known as negotiated rulemaking that will take months and is needed to align current rules with an industry-backed bill signed into law by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter on Wednesday.

The new law makes the Idaho Department of Lands responsible for initial drilling decisions and the five appointed members of the commission more of an appellate body that approves or reverses those decisions.

After the meeting, commission chairman Chris Beck said the change means experts will handle technical aspects and “we’ll be given the opportunity to make a decision if someone appeals it, and I think that’s appropriate.”

Commissioners also voted 3-1 to approve a plan that outlines the overall strategy for the commission, which was formed in 2013.

Houston-based Alta Mesa has at times expressed frustration as Idaho tries to catch up with an industry using new technologies that have located what companies believe are profitable reserves. The company backed the new law, which went into effect with Otter’s signature, and also liked the strategic plan the commission approved.

“I think both those are positive steps,” company attorney Michael Christian said. “The legislation that we pursued I think will help give everybody better definition and certainty about how the processes will work and I think these two things today are just the next step in that evolution.”

State officials say the company has 18 wells in some stage of development in southwestern Idaho, with six listed as producing.

Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League told the commission that his group favored going ahead with the negotiated rulemaking process.

However, because state lawmakers set oil and gas rules by statute with the recent law, it’s not clear how much leeway regulators and the public will have in developing those rules.

“People who I hear from are concerned about making sure we have enough protections for ground water, that domestic wells are being monitored appropriately,” Hayes said after the meeting. “We’ll hopefully be able to discuss those issues in rulemaking.”

The proposed rules must be ready by late November so they can go before lawmakers the Legislature for approval next year.

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