Nearly 14 months after plans to drill a hydraulic fracturing well in a wooded area of St. Tammany Parish became public, nary an inch of earth has been pierced.
Similarly, almost 13 months after Parish President Pat Brister promised a comprehensive parish regulatory program that would protect residents and businesses around the site from any potential harm, not a single new ordinance has been passed.
On May 20, 2014, a month after Helis Oil & Gas Co.’s plans to drill a fracking well near Lakeshore High School became public, Brister issued an open letter promising to create noise, road, water quality and other ordinances that would closely monitor and regulate any fracking operations in the parish.
The letter outlined eight specific areas that she hoped to cover, including water testing, hours of operation, truck traffic, hazard mitigation programs, buffer zones and rig noise.
“We must be pro-active and position ourselves to protect our beautiful parish. Our intention all along has been to do our due diligence and devise a plan that would provide that protection by all the means at our disposal,” Brister wrote in the letter. “It is our charge to defend our parish, and we will stand fast to that duty.”
But more than a year later, the parish has not passed a single ordinance directed at potential oil drilling. Rather, the parish — led by the Parish Council — has mounted a legal challenge to the drilling effort itself, arguing in state court in Baton Rouge that the parish’s zoning ordinances prevented drilling at the proposed site north of Interstate 12 and east of La. 1088 from being drilled.
But 19th Judicial District Court Judge William Morvant didn’t buy that argument, tossing out the parish’s suit against the state’s commissioner of conservation in April. On Thursday, the council voted to appeal that decision.
Brister said Friday that many of the ordinances she had hoped to pass were made superfluous by the drilling permit issued by the state commissioner of conservation.
That permit, issued in December, came with several restrictions, including requiring Helis to pay for monitoring of air, noise, storm and groundwater around the well.
In addition, Helis has said trucks going to and from the well site off La. 1088 will not run during high-traffic times and will travel only on state roads.
The state’s requirements “were more restrictive than the things we were going to ask for,” Brister said Friday. Moreover, because the restrictions are attached to the permit, enforcement of them could be as simple as canceling the permit, she said. Enforcing parish ordinances could be complicated by litigation, she said.
“We felt (having the restrictions attached to the permit) was a great way get those issues” covered, Brister said. She said she would ask for the same caveats to be attached to any other permit for drilling wells in St. Tammany Parish.
Nevertheless, Brister said, her administration is preparing ordinances to be proposed “as a backup measure.”
The parish’s inaction has angered at least one leading anti-fracking activist. Rick Franzo, head of the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, said the parish should pass the ordinances regardless of what state authorities have done.
“To me, this is a big problem ... that the parish hasn’t put any ordinances in place,” he said. “Even if they believe nothing’s going to happen — fine, believe that, but put something in place to protect us in case.”
Franzo’s group is a party to the suit in Baton Rouge, and even before the Parish Council voted to appeal Morvant’s ruling, he announced that his group would appeal. The group is in the process of hiring a new attorney, Andrew Jacoby, who said he is still getting up to speed on the case.
But he said he planned to argue on appeal that zoning is a sacred power granted to local authorities and that the St. Tammany suit — which relied heavily on arguing the parish’s zoning rules trumped the state’s exclusive authority to regulate oil and gas drilling — was not about regulating fracking, as attorneys for the state successfully argued before Morvant.
Morvant’s ruling could have “far-reaching impacts” beyond Louisiana, Jacoby said.
But Helis has yet to start construction on the first phase of the well — a 13,000-foot-deep vertical exploratory well on a three-acre drilling pad. The company has yet to obtain a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to construct the pad in an area designated as wetlands, but that decision is expected to come any day.
Not surprisingly, that permit is already facing a legal challenge, this one from the town of Abita Springs, which argues that the Corps illegally denied the town’s request for a public hearing on the wetlands permit application. On May 27, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney representing the Corps asked for 30 extra days to respond to the suit, saying in his motion that he understood a decision was set to come down on the permit within weeks.
Once that permit is granted, the company can begin construction on the first well. Helis representatives have said the company plans to drill the initial exploratory well and collect samples from the shale more than two miles deep. Those samples will be tested to see if the shale can be a commercially viable producer of oil, a process expected to take three or four months. If the results are positive, then the company will have to apply for another drilling permit from the state and another wetlands permit from the Corps.
Those permits would allow Helis to drill a mile-long horizontal shaft out from the bottom of the test well and then hydraulically fracture, or “frack,” the well. When a well is fracked, water, sand and chemicals are injected into it at high pressure. That mixture creates and props open tiny cracks in the rock through which oil and gas can be extracted and pumped to the surface.
Fracking is controversial. Proponents hail it as a way to open up vast new oil and gas deposits and end American dependence on foreign oil, while opponents cite it for a litany of alleged environmental and health problems. Some communities, such as Denton, Texas, have tried to ban it altogether, with varying degrees of success. The Texas Legislature this year banned local communities from enacting such bans.
In St. Tammany, activists have pointed to potential threats to the parish’s underground aquifer and its suburban way of life.
A long-awaited report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on fracking’s impact on drinking water supplies was released in draft form Thursday. Both proponents and opponents of fracking had hoped the report would provide some sort of vindication for their point of view.
The report said there is no systemic evidence that fracking has had a negative impact on drinking water supplies. But it also said that in many cases, it was impossible to study the impacts because no testing had been conducted before fracking took place.
Brister and Franzo both said they are studying the report to help determine their next steps.
Staff writer Sara Pagones contributed to this report.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.