For the second time in less than a month, a state district judge has thrown a roadblock in the way of Helis Oil & Gas Co.’s proposed St. Tammany well.
The project is controversial because it would use fracking to release oil trapped in underground rocks.
Baton Rouge Judge Timothy Kelley — at least the third state judge to hold a hearing concerning the well — on Monday ordered state Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh to release more information about the deliberations his office went through before approving the company’s drilling permit.
The ruling effectively renders the permit moot in the meantime.
Kelley, a 19th Judicial District Court judge, said he was not ordering Welsh to reopen public comment or hold another hearing on the permit, but he said Welsh needs to show that he considered at least three issues: whether a fault line may lie near the fracking site, whether that site is the best spot to drill and whether a cost-benefit analysis was performed.
Attorneys for Abita Springs had asked the court to review the process by which Welsh issued the drilling permit in December.
The town’s attorney, Lisa Jordan, argued that Welsh has a constitutional duty to protect the people of Louisiana from the possible adverse consequences of oil and gas drilling. That duty could include performing analyses that are above and beyond those required by department regulations, she said.
“This is a close call,” Kelley said before sending the permit back to Welsh. “I have to reverse and remand this matter.”
Kelley rejected arguments from Daniel Henry, who represented the Department of Natural Resources, and Matt Jones, representing Helis. They contended that Welsh did everything he was required by law to do, the same things that were done for the 1,500 other permits issued last year. They said Welsh considered expert testimony — much of it presented by attorneys for Helis — that addressed site location and impact analyses.
Further, the pair argued, the list of extra measures that the drilling permit requires Helis to take — including forcing the company to use what is called a “closed-loop” system to prevent contaminants from being released into the environment and a prohibition on waste pits — was evidence of Welsh’s careful consideration of the application.
Kelley didn’t buy it.
“I don’t see where he addressed certain issues,” he said. “They are not addressed in the record.”
The handful of well opponents who had gathered to hear the arguments were jubilant at the ruling, with several offering a “Thanks, judge,” as Kelley left the bench.
Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons said Kelley’s ruling will allow Lemons to “protect the people of Abita Springs.”
Jordan said the ruling “represents a statement to the DNR that oil and gas drilling does not trump citizens’ rights.”
Daniel Henry, who represented Welsh, said he would confer with Welsh about whether to appeal the ruling or agree to reconsider the permit.
Kelley’s decision was just another speed bump thrown up by fracking opponents, Helis spokesman Greg Beuerman said. “Our opponents’ strategy is just to delay, delay, delay,” he said.
The company’s project is on hold anyway after the parish issued a stop-work order last month. That order came after another 19th Judicial District Court judge, William Morvant, granted a parish request for a “suspensive” appeal. Such an appeal sets aside the effects of Morvant’s earlier ruling, which prohibited the parish from using its zoning ordinance to prevent Helis from drilling the well.
Before the parish stopped the work, Helis had begun construction on the approximately three-acre drilling pad about a mile south of Lakeshore High School. Even after issuing the order, the parish allowed Helis to complete work on about two dozen water wells at the site, as well as air monitoring equipment. That work was completed and inspected by parish officials Friday, a parish spokesman confirmed.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.