Fracking dispute laps at Legislature; sentencing reform provokes controversy

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April 15th, 2015

Fracking dispute laps at Legislature; sentencing reform provokes controversy (Photo Courtesy Fred Knapp)

Fracking dispute laps at Legislature; sentencing reform provokes controversy (Photo Courtesy Fred Knapp)

Concern over the proposed disposal of fracking water in western Nebraska spilled over into the Nebraska Legislature Tuesday, and controversy surfaced over sentencing reforms intended to address prison overcrowding.


Lincoln, NE – The fracking concerns involve a proposal by a company called Terex to dispose of water used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in an abandoned oil well in northwest Nebraska’s Sioux County.

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The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, considering the company’s application, says similar operations have been handled for years without problems. But some residents have expressed concern that 40 to 80 truckloads per day of waste water could tear up roads and pollute the groundwater.

Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm said Nebraska has far weaker regulations than neighboring Colorado. “Colorado requires a $1 million bond requirement. Nebraska requires $10,000. That’s less than the insurance you need to have on your car. Colorado requires financial assurance of the company, wildlife protection, dust and noise prevention, traffic plans to make sure the access roads are good, and clear public hearing requirements,” he said.

Those public hearing requirements became an issue following a hearing in Sidney last month. Haar said the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has decided comments from people who live more than half a mile from the site would not be made part of the public record.

Sen. John Stinner of Gering said he’s requested the commission hold off on its decision. “I’ve asked them to delay this application until we have an opportunity to really take a look at how we do things. Because I think water is the key issue here, and that’s the resource that we have to protect,” he said.

Stinner said he wants to get people together over the summer to study the situation. Sen. Ken Schilz, chairman of the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee, said that group will make sure everyone’s interests are protected. “We have a study that will be acted on. The Natural Resources Committee will do its due diligence and take a look into the situation and make sure that we are protecting all stakeholders as we move forward with this process,” he said.

Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Deputy Director Stan Belieu said the commission has not yet decided about delaying action on the Terex application, and is waiting to hear from the Attorney General’s office what the effect would be. The debate came as the Legislature was technically considering Gov. Pete Ricketts nomination of John Arley Rundel to the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Senators approved the nomination on a vote of 32-0.

On another subject, senators rejected a proposal to raise the minimum wage for workers who receive tips, like waiters and waitresses. Currently, their minimum wage is $2.13 an hour. That hasn’t changed since 1991, when it was half the minimum wage for other workers. Sen. Jeremy Nordquist proposed to raise the tipped minimum again to where it would reach half the non-tipped figure, currently $8 an hour in Nebraska. An amendment would have increased the wage to only $2.64 an hour. Opponents said that would create burdens for small restaurants, and federal law already requires employers to make up the difference if employee tips still leave them short of the regular minimum wage. The bill failed, with only 18 senators supporting it and 27 opposed.

Tuesday afternoon, senators were scheduled to take up a package of sentencing reform bills designed to address prison overcrowding. Nebraska’s prisons currently hold more than 5,200 inmates, which is nearly 2,000, or 59 percent, more than they were designed for. Bills have been proposed to reduce sentences for certain crimes. Two and a half hours before debate was scheduled to begin, Attorney General Doug Peterson held a press conference with county attorneys to criticize aspects of the proposal. “I think entertaining a series of so-called prison reform laws that in effect simply reduce sentences for serious violent criminals — that’s a concern. And I don’t know. I think I have a pretty good sense where the Nebraska citizens stand on that. But it waits to be seen where the Nebraska senators stand,” he said.

One particular objection prosecutors had was to a so-called indeterminate sentencing provision, under which the minimum sentence a judge could impose could be no more than one third of the maximum. Supporters of the provision argued that it would give inmates an incentive for rehabilitation, because it creates a gap of years between when someone is eligible for parole and when he or she can get out of prison with no supervision. Some county attorneys argue those same incentives can be achieved with minimums closer to maximums, or by specifying the gap in terms of years.

Sen. Health Mello, sponsor of one of the sentencing bills, promised a compromise would be negotiated between the first and second round of debate. “A number of senators from the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Harr and myself, will meet and work with those who oppose a portion of the committee amendment. We’ll work between general and select file to find a negotiation that we can bring back to the body that will help enhance the issue that has been brought forward, which is trying to alleviate the jamming out of sentence without adopting the very broad nature of indeterminate sentencing,” he said.

Following those assurances, senators voted 35-3 first round approval of Mello’s bill.

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