Helis Oil & Gas Co.’s plan to drill an oil well in St. Tammany Parish cleared a regulatory hurdle Friday when Louisiana Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh issued a decision approving the boundaries of the tract where the company wants to drill.
The decision, known as a unit order, was expected. It means the company can now apply to the Department of Natural Resources for a drilling permit, a matter that normally takes just a few days.
Before any drilling can take place, however, Helis has to obtain a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to drill in a wetlands area. The Corps recently directed company officials to revise and resubmit their application to match the two-stage procedure they have promised to follow in drilling the well.
Helis’ plan set off a storm of controversy in St. Tammany Parish, where the well is planned for a 960-acre tract north of Interstate 12 and east of La. 1088.
The company plans to use a method of oil extraction known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. A mile-long horizontal shaft more than 2 miles underground will be pumped full of water, sand and other chemicals at high pressure. That fluid is used to create tiny fissures in shale rock 13,000 feet underground through which oil and natural gas can be extracted.
The rapid spread of shale oil and gas production has fueled a boom in domestic oil and gas production that has been hailed by proponents as helping the United States significantly reduce its dependence on foreign sources of oil and gas.
Fracking has many critics, however. Some have blamed the process — especially the chemicals in the fracking fluid — for myriad health and environmental problems. Communities in New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado, among others, have attempted to ban the practice, with varying degrees of success.
In St. Tammany, reaction to Helis’ plans was swift and vociferous. Groups were formed to fight the proposed well, and the Parish Council was persuaded to hire an outside law firm to oppose the project — resulting in the filing of a lawsuit against Welsh seeking to prevent him from issuing a drilling permit. A watchdog group, the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, has vowed to fight Helis’ plan all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Opponents of the plan have not been mollified by promises made by Helis to monitor air and water quality near the site before and during the well’s construction and production. Helis also has offered to create the well in two stages, first drilling a vertical shaft, after which samples from the drilling depth will be tested. If the test results are positive, the company would proceed with the horizontal drilling and fracking portions of the process. If the test results are negative, the company promises to plug and abandon the well.
Friday’s order by the Office of Conservation took about twice as long as unit orders normally take. That, according to a Department of Natural Resources spokesman, was due to the large number of comments received in opposition to the plan, all of which had to be sifted through to determine their relevance.
Helis issued a short written statement saying the company was pleased with the decision but pointing out that the unit order was routine.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.