From a spot on a muddy road in St. Tammany Parish near where Helis Oil & Gas wants to drill a 13,000-foot-deep oil well, only a low murmur of cars and trucks passing on nearby Interstate 12 was audible Wednesday morning. Water from rains earlier in the week covered parts of the rutted track that leads to the site. Dragonflies, butterflies and birds flitted back and forth among the pine trees that dominate the area.
About 100 yards off the pitted road, a yellow ribbon tied to a tree marks the spot where the well will be drilled — if Helis secures the required wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the well, which has stirred up a storm of controversy in St. Tammany Parish.
The Corps requested last week that Helis provide information on other potential sites for the drilling pad, the 10-acre area that would contain the well, storage tanks, housing for workers during the drilling phase and an open pit for stormwater collection.
Helis representatives giving a tour of the site Wednesday said that even if they move the drilling pad to satisfy the Corps, the site’s isolation will help insulate surrounding areas, including nearby Lakeshore High School, from any noise or visual nuisance caused by drilling.
But just in case, the company plans to conduct pre-drilling testing of the water, air and soil surrounding the site.
Helis has already secured permission to conduct baseline testing on the wells at the high school. The results of those tests will be shared with “the appropriate people,” Mike Barham, a Helis engineer, said, adding that the company will work with the parish government to determine how to release the information.
Helis also plans to put noise-dampening equipment at the site and to limit truck traffic to low-traffic times, according to Barham.
Security stations will be put at the intersection of La. 1088 and Log Cabin Road, the uneven dirt road on which Wednesday’s tour started. The company will help train all first responders in the parish with both classroom and mock-event sessions, Barham said.
But critics of the company’s plans remain unconvinced.
“I am glad there is some thought about how to make it safe,” said Rick Franzo, president of the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, a group that opposes the proposed fracking well. But he said all test results need to be made public, and he promised his group will continue to work to stop the well from being drilled altogether.
In addition to the wetlands permit Helis must obtain from the Corps, the company is also waiting to hear from the state Department of Natural Resources whether it believes Helis’ proposed tract of land is appropriate for drilling a well. A hearing on that issue was held in June, and Barham said he hopes to hear something on it this week, as most such “unit orders” are issued within about 30 days after the hearing.
But a Department of Natural Resources spokesman said Helis’ application could take longer because of the large amount of public comment that accompanied it. DNR staff have been sifting through the comments to determine which were relevant according to the rules of the hearing.
A unit order is necessary for a company to apply for a drilling permit.
In addition, a suit filed by St. Tammany Parish government in state court in Baton Rouge seeks to block the state from issuing a drilling permit based on two grounds: that parish zoning rules prohibit industrial uses on the land in question, and that a recent Louisiana legislative auditor’s report said DNR has been delinquent in inspecting wells around the state.
That suit is set for a status conference Aug. 28.
Helis’ plan to put an oil well in St. Tammany Parish has generated a storm of controversy, with residents and activists from both inside and outside the parish crowding public meetings held since the plan first came to light in April.
Opponents have decried the proposed well, especially Helis’ plan to extract the oil through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. When a well is fracked, millions of gallons of water and chemicals are injected into the ground at high pressure in order to create tiny fissures in rocks through which oil and natural gas can flow into the well and be pumped to the surface.
Many environmentalists have alleged that fracking is unsafe, and various communities, including some in Texas and New York, have attempted to ban it, with varying degrees of success.
For the Tammany well, Barham said, Helis would use about 4 million gallons of water to conduct its fracking operation, all of which would be injected into the well within about a week’s time. The water would not come from the underlying aquifer or local rivers but from nearby surface ponds, Barham said.
Along with the water, the company plans to inject chemicals and a man-made ceramic proppant — tiny man-made balls that will hold the cracks open so that oil and natural gas can flow through them. Helis expects to recover about 50 percent of the fracking fluid when the well begins to produce oil and gas, Barham said.
The company is planning to produce oil — the underground formation in question, the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, is estimated to hold 7 billion barrels of it — but natural gas could be found, too. Barham said the company is unsure how much natural gas may be present and so, during an initial six-month testing phase, that gas will be flared off. But if it appears there is enough natural gas to sell, the company has been in talks with Gulf South about tieing into an existing pipeline that runs just yards from the proposed drilling site, he said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.