Writings and observations

Each Monday, we publish the Idaho Weekly Briefing, sent via email to subscribers. toward the end of last year, we decided to try something new: Summarizing the key elements of the Briefings from throughout the year in one book. The Idaho Briefing Yearbook 2012 is now available, covering all of the last year.

Ordering information is in the box above. It is available now.

Unlike the regular Briefings, the book is available only (for now) in print version.

It takes in a wide range of territory, the same as the weekly Briefings (which also, separately, cover Oregon and Washington). We have reports on politics, federal, state and local government, legal and law enforcement action, business and the economy, the environment, health and education, transportation, communication and culture in the state. There are also calendars and reports on milestones of people – arrival and departures, including deaths, during the year.

If you want to know what happened (that’s of importance) in Idaho last year, the Yearbook is probably the best place to start. Let us know what you think.

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Barrett Rainey
Second Thoughts

One of Idaho’s two congressional districts will be missing in the U.S. House this year. And next. The Republican fella who normally sits in the chair reserved for Idahoans from Boise North – Raul Labrador – will likely be a non-entity. And those 650,000 or so people he’s supposed to represent will have to get along without him handling their interests for about 24 months.

In another moment of his usual detachment from political reality, Labrador assured his exile by not voting for Speaker John Boehner’s re-election. He’ll chose to call it a “matter of conscience.” The rest of us will call it what it is: a “matter of betrayal of constituents.” If you want to fly your own single-seat plane into a cliff for personal reasons of conviction, that’s “conscience.” When you take 650,000 people with you, that’s betrayal. Not actively supporting your leadership when leadership needs your support is the closest Raul will get to piloting his own plane again. He’ll disappear from Boehner’s radar for about every purpose.

As for Boehner, he’ll spend the next two years in an even more ineffective role than the last two. He can’t speak for all of his own caucus. In fact, 16 of his members voted against him to keep his job and, if another 15 had changed their votes, he wouldn’t have made the first ballot cut. Messages there? You bet. Boehner will be able to do nothing the nutty right fringe doesn’t allow unless he gets some Democrats to go along.

And former Speaker Dennis Hastert – on Fixed News – had an experienced warning about such coalitions for ol’ John: “Maybe you can do it once; maybe you can do it twice. But you start making deals when you have to have Democrats to pass legislation, you’re not in power anymore.”

Then there’s this. While more than 82% of Americans disapprove of Congress and what it’s been doing – or rather, not doing – the evidence is overwhelming members don’t care. It used to be such polling numbers would send those folks home to apologize and promise they’d never do again whatever it was that put them in such disfavor. Now, they don’t care.

Two reasons. First, the districts have been redrawn to protect the majority party – in this case, the 2010 census numbers were massaged in favor of House Republicans. House Democrats would likely have done the same were they in power in 2011. The GOP just happened to have the majority at the time of the most recent census. So they aren’t as vulnerable to the various voter mood swings as in the past.

Second, money. If you’ve got a billionaire or Super PAC behind you, there’s no need to go looking for $5 and $10 donations at home. Karl Rove, the Koch boys, Adeleson, Standfield and the rest have direct deposit slips to your account. The more fringy – the more to the right – the more gullible – the more eager to kiss a rich finger ring – to be led, – the better. So you keep the big guys with the big bucks happy and enjoy the ride.

The other thing that’s already effectively reduced the Speaker’s clout is that group of 30-40 ideologues he can’t control. You can’t appease ‘em. You can’t buy ‘em off. You can’t lead ‘em. And they won’t shut up. They’ll continue to undercut Boehner’s authority at every turn.

Finally, as if his old political body didn’t already carry enough scars, Boehner grabbed the dull rhetorical knife and cut his own wrists by saying he would no longer communicate – coordinate – confer – negotiate – with the White House. Now, consider his weakened position within his own caucus, his already proven need to rely on Democrats when big issues come around and the fact he represents only one-half of one-third of the three branches of our government. In recent days, a vice president and a senator put together the grand “cliff” bargain without him and Boehner was left to fight it out with his own Republicans to get the deal done. Which he couldn’t have done without what? Without Democrats. And what did wise former Speaker Hastert warn him? “You do that and you’re no longer in power.”

So Boehner has turned his back on the president. And Labrador has turned his back on Boehner. Boehner may be able to build a coalition or two now and then as needed.

Labrador? Well, he can make the rounds of the rubber chicken circuit of far right believers and crow about his “matters of conscience.”

There’s gonna be an election in 2014 in which both men have an interest. I’d make book on Boehner. Labrador? You’ll probably find him at the airport. Sitting in his little airplane. All by himself.

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Idaho Rainey

Mark Mendiola
Eastern Idaho

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” coupled with technological advances in horizontal drilling, have revolutionized the natural gas industry’s ability to tap into North America’s vast shale reserves and dramatically boost available natural gas volumes.

Because of its relatively low cost and increased availability, natural gas has become the “energy of choice” for many companies using it to fire up their plants, heat their buildings, generate electricity and maintain business operations.

Natural gas executives lately are expressing an optimism they haven’t always enjoyed about their industry’s future. Before, limited natural gas reserves appeared for decades to be locked up and inaccessible due to an inability to reach them underground.

Fracking and horizontal drilling have made an almost infinite supply of natural gas and petroleum a reality, they say, greatly helping America’s energy independence.

But the controversial hydro fracturing technology is opposed by many environmental groups who fear it contaminates ground water, reduces air quality and causes gases and chemicals to migrate to land surfaces.

Injection of highly pressurized fluids into subterranean shale formations creates new veins or fractures, which improve extraction rates and recovery of hydrocarbons. The fluid injected into the rock typically is a slurry of water, sand, gels , foams, chemical additives and gases, including nitrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen.

Industry officials say fracturing liquids consist 90 percent of water, 9.5 percent of sand and .5 percent of chemicals. A typical fracking treatment uses between three and 12 chemical additives, including acids, salt, friction reducers, ethylene glycol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, carbonates and disinfectants.

Petroleum engineers, not public relations professionals, coined the term “fracking,” notes Dan Kirschner, executive director of the Portland-based Northwest Gas Association – a trade organization that includes six natural gas utilities serving Idaho, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, and four transmission pipelines that transport natural gas throughout the region from supply basins.

There were large declines in industrial natural gas use in 1999 and 2000 in connection with California’s energy crisis, which left only two of 10 aluminum plants standing in the Pacific Northwest, Kirschner says. The “Great Recession” that started at the end of 2008 also caused permanent shutdowns of other plants across the region.

Meanwhile, “gas came into the market right into the teeth of the Great Recession. There was a decline in demand just as there was a great increase in production.” From 2007 to 2010, there was a dramatic spike in production, driving down costs.

natural gas
Scott Madison, Intermountain Gas executive vice president and general manager, right, discusses natural gas issues with Kirk Bailey following a City Club of Idaho Falls presentation. (photo/Mark Mendiola)

Although the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association (NOAA) predicted a more active hurricane season that could impact drilling in the Gulf of Mexico during 2012, “the gas market didn’t budge. It didn’t even blink.”

In 2010, 600,000 jobs were directly related to natural gas production, up 20 percent since 2007. While the prices of oil and natural gas historically have run in tandem, a “disconnect” since has occurred, with natural gas remaining much less expensive than petroleum.

The ability to extract natural gas from shale rock and sandstone has changed the equation for the industry, which he calls “a great paradigm shift.” Kirschner notes that ability to effectively combine hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling the past decade has unlocked previously unusable reserves.

Horizontal drilling allows access to thousands more feet of resource and minimizes surface disturbances, the NWGA executive director says, remarking that common concerns about fracking entail “water, water and water.”

Oil and natural gas wells are drilled 5,000 to 6,000 feet below drinking water levels, Kirschner notes. Ninety-nine and a half percent of the fracking fluid used is sand and water. Of five million gallons pumped into fracking wells, half a percent typically consists of chemicals and lubricants – or about 25,000 gallons.

Keeping that “cocktail” isolated and separated is a top priority of producers, who use top technology to protect drinking water and are exploring other alternatives, including the use of reclaimed or “gray” water that was not available three years ago. “Water costs producers 15 cents to $15 a barrel,” he says.

The likelihood of fracking fluids contaminating drinking water is “very, very, very low,” Kirschner says. Producers also are looking very closely at reducing related air emissions, including diesel fumes, fugitive methane and particulate matter.

Hydraulic fracturing and well construction are state-regulated, but water disposal falls under the federal Clean Water Act. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering more stringent fracking regulations.

Scott Madison, executive vice president and general manager of Intermountain Gas and Cascade Natural Gas, North Dakota-based MDU Resources Group subsidiaries, notes that Intermountain Gas – which serves 320,000 customers in 74 communities and employs more than 300 in Idaho – has not filed for a rate increase since 1984. Since 2008, its residential price has decreased 40 percent.

Intermountain Gas secures its natural gas via Williams Northwest Pipeline from British Columbia, Alberta, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. “We now buy primarily Canadian,” Madison says, adding Intermountain Gas can toggle between Canada and the Rockies, depending on best prices.

The utility will invest $20 million in capital to increase its pipeline capacity by 17 percent from Pocatello to Rexburg via Shelley, Ammon and Rigby in eastern Idaho. It employs 180 employees at its Meridian call center that serves a million MDU electricity and natural gas customers in eight states.

For the past 40 years, those involved in the nation’s natural gas industry estimated only a supply of 10 to 20 years remained, but the success of fracking and horizontal drilling has been “a game changer,” Madison says. “A lot of recovery hasn’t been there before.” More than 100 years supply could now be available.

Frank Morehouse, Madison’s predecessor at Intermountain Gas and new president and chief executive officer of MDU’s utility group, notes that Intermountain Gas has applied for a 6½ percent rate decrease with the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. Its rates have dropped 4 percent to 5 percent each of the last four years.

Morehouse expects Intermountain Gas will gain 4,500 customers in 2013 and natural gas production near Payette in western Idaho could come on line within 12 months. In the past, Intermountain has received 60 percent of its gas from the Rockies and 40 percent from Canada.

“We really need a comprehensive energy policy at the federal level. That’s a very important step to take toward becoming energy independent,” which would strengthen the U.S. position in global energy markets, Morehouse says.

MDU Resources’ utility group includes Intermountain Gas, Montana-Dakota Utilities Co., Great Plains Natural Gas. Co. and Cascade Natural Gas Corp., serving 976,000 customers. MDU employs up to 12,000 people in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas and Minnesota.

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Idaho Mendiola

The House delegation from the Northwest split in some uncommon ways on the big tax/budget bill Tuesday – splitting the parties in the region on some not totally expected lines. (See this excellent New York Times map.)

The Senate delegation was united in its vote in favor of the bill, as the Senate overall was lopsidedly in favor.

The House was more deeply split, and unusual in this cycle has featured a bill passing the House with a strong majority of the Republican caucus in opposition. 151 Republicans voted no, almost twice as many as the 85 who voted yes; Democrats basically passed the bill, with 172 in favor and 16 against.

The Northwest delegation, given that kind of split, didn’t vote as you might expect.

Of the seven Republicans in the region’s House delegation, just one voted against the bill – Raul Labrador of the Idaho 1st. All six of the others – Idaho’s Mike Simpson, Oregon’s Greg Walden, and Washington’s Doc Hastings, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dave Reichert – all voted in favor, on the minority side within the Republican caucus. Might it matter that Walden and McMorris Rodgers are in leadership, Simpson is fairly close to leadership (well, presumably, the John Boehner side of what now looks like a split leadership) and Beutler and Richert come from relatively marginal districts?

On the Democratic side, you see an interesting split as well. Most of the Oregon Democrats voted no – Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader – while Suzanne Bonamici in the 1st district voted yes. Washington was more deeply split: Norm Dicks (the senior member of the region’s delegation), Suzan DelBene (the junior member) and Rick Larsen voted yes; but Adam Smith and Jim McDermott voted no. Overall, the Democrats in the region voted 6-3 in favor of the bill, a closer margin than in the caucus overall.

You’ll hear a wide range of explanations for all this in the days ahead.

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Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

An “Open Letter” to Jeffrey Sayer
Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission

Dear Mr. Sayer:

Former Governors Phil Batt and Cecil Andrus have once again rendered their fellow citizens a tremendous service – indeed, service above and beyond the call of duty.

Both governors saw through the smoke screen of wishful thinking by blind Idaho National Laboratory partisans who with dollar signs dancing in their eyes thought they could hornswoggle the two governors into accepting amendments to Governor Batt’s 1995 agreement with the Lab, Do E and The United States Navy severely limiting the importation of any more (other than a small amount for research purposes) nuclear waste and mandating it all be gone from the Site by 2035.

Idahoans ought to thank the members of Governor Butch Otter’s LINE commission for being, choose your word: dumb or naïve, enough to think that dangling a carrot of vague, unspecified additional economic development might possibly entice Idaho ’s current leadership to amend the 1995 agreement.

There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that Butch will buck two governors who he served as Lt. Governor and cross their emphatic response to even the hint of amending the agreement with their firm not just NO!, but Hell No!

Batt and Andrus understand that Idaho has the only agreement of any state NOT to be turned into an interim waste or possibly permanent waste repository. The 1995 agreement gives Idaho the only real leverage it has and it is reinforced by having been held up as binding in a Federal Court of law.

To deal away a “hole card” would be the height of folly when dealing with a Federal government that did not begin to keep many of its promises until the 1995 agreement was in place.

One cannot be any clearer than Governor Andrus was in his letter to the LINE Commission chair, Commerce director Jeff Sayer. He told Sayer he had carefully read all 50 plus pages including the recommendations and “nothing in the (Line Commission) report warrants any amendment for any reason to the Batt Agreement of 1995.. . .”

To have Governor Batt follow suit immediately with his own strongly worded letter to the Idaho Statesman ensured that folks would still see the two governors from different political parties were absolutely tied together at the hip on this matter.

It was meant to signal to anyone who might try to make this into a partisan matter that that too was a non-starter. The governors had obviously been talking and had coordinated their responses. One could almost hear the gnashing of teeth in far away north Idaho emanating from the INL booster types in Idaho Falls.

One cannot help wondering what they were thinking by issuing a progress report with such a non-starter in it and thereby giving Batt and Andrus the opportunity to kick it completely off the table. But that’s what the Commission did and the result was pretty predictable.

One wishes that this was a deliberate strategy by Governor Otter and Director Sayer to use this as a “teaching moment” to curb the INL boosters who think in an era of shrinking federal budgets they can buck the trend and generate many more federal dollars for the INL. Somehow, that seems just a bit too sophisticated for them.

With all due respect, Sayer ought now to make it abundantly clear to any others that wish to comment not to waste their time trying to make a case for any quid quo pro that would involve first having to amend the Batt agreement. It’s a non-starter so don’t waste anyone’s time.

(To be continued)

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Carlson Idaho

Barrett Rainey
Second Thoughts

There’s really nothing remarkable about Kelli Lee Fields. You’d walk past her on any Eugene, Oregon street and probably never notice her. Except, she might be wearing the biggest smile of her life.

You see, Kelli Lee Fields was driving her car in Eugene late on a November evening. In the space of a couple of minutes, she was to blame for two wrecks and sending several people to the hospital – one with life-changing injuries. She was drunk. Legally sloshed. Before the officer finished writing up the incident report, she had more than a dozen charges against her. Pretty serious stuff. And, it wasn’t the first time.

Then the lawyers got into it. A little give here – a little plea there – and the list was pared down to nine counts to which she pled guilty. Drunken driving, third-degree assault, hit and run and criminal mischief among them. The judge bought off on the agreement and sentenced her to 15 months in the lockup. And off she went to the Lane County jail to serve her sentence.

Except – after she was processed in and ready to be shown her cell – she was out the front door with papers showing she had served her entire sentence. She was a free woman. She was free because the Lane County jail – built to house 500 prisoners – has laid off most of its staff and the 135 beds still active are full. So Kelli Lee Fields walked on her first day! To drive Eugene streets again.

About a month ago, a Eugene fella with a long criminal record – including bank robbery – was arrested for the second time in 90 days. He was taken to the Lane County jail, booked, and released. Less than two hours later, he held up another bank and was back again. Sheriff must have cut somebody else loose because – this time – he stayed.

You’ll find the same sort of thing happening in Josephine County where law breakers are routinely arrested, charged, booked and – released. Not unusual to see the same faces coming back again and again. The jail in Grants Pass has only a few beds occupied because so many jailers and other deputies have been laid off.

In the western parts of Josephine, armed civilians are prowling the streets and forest roads – “citizen patrols” they like to call themselves. Sheriff says it’s just a matter of time until somebody’s shot. The citizens claim, if the County can’t afford patrol officers, they’ll do it themselves.

In adjoining Curry County, Sheriff John Bishop is down to about a half-dozen or so deputies. The lockup’s full and local courts are putting criminals back on the streets. They’ve got a lot of repeat offenders there, too. Without more funding – which will have to come from outside the county – Bishop says he may have to go out of business by mid-summer. Close the sheriff’s office. Yep, it’s that bad.

For many years, these counties and more than a dozen others in Southern Oregon, have received millions of dollars from the feds. Long story but it was basically payment to local governments because the feds own most of the timberlands hereabouts. Since those lands were off the local tax rolls, the feds provided a temporary “in-lieu” assistance program. Operating word there is “temporary.” Payments are now ending. And counties that had been relying on those millions for their continuing operations are flat up against the wall.

Oregon’s congressional folk have been doing yeoman’s work trying to keep the dollars flowing – even if only on a new “temporary” basis.

But it’s coming to an end. And with that end, we are seeing more criminals walking who should be processed and locked up. We’re seeing increased crime. We’re seeing more arrests of violators who’ve already been arrested and released without trial. Sometimes more than once. We have higher unemployment. And we’ve got more folks “packing heat” under the guise of “self-protection.” With or without permits. We’re becoming a multi-county armed camp in the 21st century.

Southwest Oregon is now a testing ground for the National Rifle Association’s murderous “arm-everybody-for-safety” craziness. Gun stores here are selling out on the semi-automatics and the big cartridge carriers. Pawn shops have some pistols and single-shot rifles but little in the heavy weapon category.

So, while you may be angry or even disgusted with the current treasonous failure of our U.S. Congress to do its legal work, many of us hereabouts are much, much more angry. We’ve used our tax dollars by the millions to build jails, hire police and other law enforcement, build and staff the courts to see justice done and our streets made safe. Now, many of those institutions are still open but they’re simply employing people – many of whom can’t do their jobs because the system is going broke.

Our little county of Douglas put a few bucks away for the bad times. So we’re in better shape than some of our neighbors. But even that wise thrift can’t keep us afloat much longer.

The nation’s economy is recovering despite the best efforts of congress to get in the way. We’ll work our way out of our economic mess with or without the support our national government exists solely to provide. Things will settle into a new normal, the bills will get paid and life will go on. May take several years to wreak the necessary electoral wrath. Still, we’ll survive.

But in our little corner of the woods, we’ve got more than an intransigent bunch of bastards in D.C. to worry about. We’ve got to look over our shoulders when waiting for a teller at the bank to make sure that habitual Lane County guy with a gun isn’t next in line. And, as we drive out of the parking lot, there’s always Kelli Lee Fields of Eugene. Either ahead – or behind – or oncoming.

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