A tumultuous spring and summer of public meetings will culminate Wednesday in an unusual public hearing on Helis Oil & Gas Co.’s application to drill a fracking well in St. Tammany Parish.
The Department of Natural Resources is holding the hearing after getting requests from the town of Abita Springs and the activist group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany. Such hearings are rare, and the fact that one is planned is a testimony to the ferocity with which foes of Helis’ plans have made their feelings known.
During the hearing, which will be structured similarly to a court proceeding, both sides will be allowed to call witnesses, present evidence and cross-examine each other’s witnesses. Members of the public also will be given an opportunity to speak before the staff from the Office of Conservation.
No decision will be made at the hearing. An additional seven days of written public comment will be allowed after it. All of the comments then will be collected, and Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh at some point will issue a decision on the drilling permit.
A Helis spokeswoman said Friday that the company plans to make a presentation and to call three witnesses: petroleum geologist Wilton Dale Jr., petroleum engineer Adam Bourgoyne Jr. and John Connor, an environmental and geotechnical engineer.
In a written paper submitted to Welsh in advance of the hearing, Helis’ attorney says the company has met all the regulatory requirements for receiving a well permit and that one should be issued.
“Helis is quite confident that its operations will have minimal impact on the safe and efficient functioning of (Lakeshore High School) and subsequent development of adjacent property,” the letter says.
The letter also scoffs at the notion that parish zoning ordinances could trump state authority to issue the permit, a key claim by groups opposed to the well.
“It is clear that the commissioner of conservation is not required to consider local zoning in ordinances in connection with issuance of a drilling permit,” the letter says. “We will not be submitting expert testimony relating to zoning because we believe it is beyond the scope of this hearing.”
Lisa Jordan, an attorney working on behalf of the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany and the town of Abita Springs, said she plans to call Mark Quarles, a professional geologist, and perhaps Stephen Villavaso, a zoning and land use specialist. Quarles, according to documents filed with the Department of Natural Resources, would testify on risks from the well to the underground aquifer, alternative well sites and other topics. Villavaso would speak to the question of whether the parish’s zoning ordinance can prohibit Helis from drilling on the proposed site.
Jordan said she is hoping to keep her presentation short in order to allow as much time for public comment as possible.
The hearing is being held in the almost 1,000-seat Lakeshore High School gym, which is about 1.2 miles from the proposed drilling site, and representatives from both sides are expecting the gym to be full.
Helis’ plans generated opposition from the moment they became public in April. The company wants to sink a 13,000-foot-deep vertical well on a 960-acre wooded tract just north of Interstate 12. Samples would be collected from that well, and if they appear to show chances of a productive well are good, the company then plans to drill an approximately mile-long horizontal shaft and then hydraulically fracture, or frack, the rock to extract oil.
In fracking, the horizontal shaft is pumped full of water, sand and other chemicals at high pressure. That mixture — sometimes called frack water — creates and props open tiny fissures in rock through which oil and natural gas can flow to the horizontal shaft and be pumped to the surface.
Opponents of fracking in general have accused companies of using toxic chemicals in the fracking mixture; in some instances, the critics say, those chemicals have infiltrated into groundwater supplies and caused myriad health and environmental problems. In St. Tammany, that concern has been especially acute, as opponents have frequently cited the potential danger to the Southern Hills Aquifer, from which the parish gets its drinking water.
Helis and pro-fracking forces have countered by pointing out that fracking wells have been drilled through the Southern Hills Aquifer in southern Mississippi and in Tangipahoa Parish, where oil drilling has been welcomed. Helis also has offered to conduct baseline water and air quality testing at sites near its well and then monitor those sites for contamination during the fracking process. In addition, the company offered to drill the well in two phases: first the vertical shaft and only then, if the test results are promising, the horizontal well.
Helis’ well site lies at the southeastern end of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, a rock formation hundreds of miles long and 2 miles deep that could contain as much as 7 billion barrels of oil. Despite optimistic predictions for the shale as a whole, Helis’ proposed well has met with some skepticism.
TMS blogger Kirk Barrell said he thought the well would have a “low probability of success,” and a Louisiana Geological Survey geologist assisting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also expressed reservations about the well’s prospects.
In urging the Corps to ask Helis to revise its original application for a permit to drill in wetlands, geologist John Johnston put the chances of the well being productive at 50-50.
Largely due to his concerns, the Corps asked Helis to reduce its original 10-acre wetlands permit application down to a 3-acre site, which would be sufficient for the vertical test well to be drilled. Helis’ original application would have allowed it to build a well pad large enough to drill both the vertical test well and the subsequent horizontal well.
That revised wetlands permit application went out for public comment on Oct. 14. The public comment period will end Nov. 13, the day after Wednesday’s hearing.
But securing the drilling and wetlands permits are not the only two challenges Helis is facing. On Oct. 27, state District Judge William Morvant in Baton Rouge refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the parish against the Department of Natural Resources. That lawsuit seeks to prevent DNR from issuing a drilling permit. In allowing the suit to go forward, Morvant also said Helis needed to be a party to the suit.
Helis has supporters as well. After an initial rush from municipalities like Abita Springs and Slidell to pass anti-fracking resolutions, Mandeville and Covington have not done so. And slowly, some groups have come out in support of Helis’ plan.
Most recently, GNO Inc. issued a broad statement backing up an earlier statement from the Northshore Business Council in support of responsible oil and gas exploration in southeast Louisiana. While neither of the statements mentioned Helis by name, GNO President and CEO Michael Hecht said it was meant to express broad support for the industry and that Helis was a part of that.
“Helis is a fine company with an outstanding record,” he said.
Hecht said he believed the project could be done while keeping a strong emphasis on the quality-of-life factors that many in St. Tammany fear will be harmed by oil drilling.
Whatever the outcome, Wednesday’s meeting is expected to be a long one. And despite the result, the fight is likely to go on.
“Will it have any impact? I don’t know,” said Rick Franzo, president of the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany. “But we are going to do whatever we think is appropriate.”
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.