To paraphrase the opening sentence of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel “1984,” it was a hot, dry day in June and the clocks in St. Tammany Parish were striking 13.
The numbing sense of apprehension and emotional dislocation expressed in the paraphrase of Orwell’s novel is what many St. Tammany Parish residents felt recently when the Army Corps of Engineers issued Helis Oil & Gas Co. a wetlands permit, allowing the company to proceed with its long-coveted hydraulic shale fracturing operation in St. Tammany.
Historically, St. Tammany residents have assumed parish government has the fundamental legal authority, enshrined in the Louisiana Constitution, to control the parish’s land use: residents accepted parish zoning classifications with bedrock certainty and planned their personal and business lives accordingly.
Alas, we now know parish residents may be badly mistaken in their assumption: Bureaucrats managing the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, Office of Conservation, have issued Helis a drilling permit in direct contravention of the parish’s zoning authority; a 19th Judicial District Court judge has ruled an antiquated oil and gas state legal statute, enacted long before the technological innovation of horizontal shale fracturing, pre-empts the parish’s zoning authority — indeed, renders the parish’s zoning authority unconstitutional as it applies to Helis’ oil and gas exploration, even in circumstances where the parish’s zoning preference is reasonably intended to protect the health, welfare and safety of parish residents.
So, with the blunt force of the energy industry’s immense power and influence, Helis has managed to intimidate local and state public officials into political submission, manipulate the state’s objectively inadequate oil and gas state regulatory agency, and draw upon out-of-date and draconian legislation to trample the parish’s fundamental state constitutional right to control its land use.
Fracking will reap Helis a spectacular amount of money; it will also ravage the parish’s natural environment, tear asunder the parish’s historical social and cultural fabric, and, in the fullness of time, place residents’ human health at serious risk.
Under the circumstances, it’s easy to understand why some residents feel the clocks in St. Tammany Parish are striking 13.
Donald P. Lee