The town of Abita Springs has filed a suit in state court in St. Tammany Parish in an effort to prevent Helis Oil & Gas Co. from drilling a hydraulic fracturing oil well near the town.
The suit, filed Monday, names Louisiana Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh and Helis as defendants. Its main contention is that the proposed well would violate parish zoning ordinances.
The suit says the area in which Helis plans to drill is zoned A-3(D), a suburban residential category. Constructing a drill pad and related structures is not permitted by the parish’s zoning code for such areas, the suit says.
The suit does not ask the court to prevent Helis from moving forward with the well while the matter is litigated. But Lisa Jordan, the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic attorney who is representing Abita Springs, said she hopes the court will move quickly on the suit.
The Abita Springs suit is similar, but not identical, to a suit filed by the parish government in state court in Baton Rouge. That suit also alleged that the well would violate parish zoning laws, but it further said the Office of Conservation — overseen by Welsh — had been delinquent in overseeing other oil and gas wells in the state. In October, Judge William Morvant refused to dismiss the parish’s suit and ordered that Helis be added as a party.
The Abita Springs suit is the latest hurdle in Helis’ ongoing battle to drill a well northeast of Mandeville.
The company wants to employ a method known as horizontal drilling coupled with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract oil from the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale formation more than 12,000 feet underground. The shale, which stretches from St. Tammany Parish in the southeast through Louisiana’s midsection, may contain as much as 7 billion barrels of oil, and fracking wells already have been drilled in Tangipahoa, St. Helena and West Feliciana parishes and in Mississippi.
When a horizontal well is fracked, water, sand and other chemicals are injected at high pressure into a long horizontal shaft. That mixture creates tiny fissures in rock through which oil and natural gas can be pulled to the surface, where they are collected. The process has fueled a boom in American oil production, and proponents say it can help the country reduce its dependence on imported oil.
But opponents have said the method poses unacceptable environmental risks to both air and water quality and have blamed it for health problems suffered by some of those who live near the wells. In other states, including Texas, Colorado, New York and Pennsylvania, communities have attempted to ban it, with varying degrees of success.
In St. Tammany, a vociferous public outcry erupted almost as soon as the plan became public. Opponents were able to persuade the Parish Council to file the suit in Baton Rouge and to get anti-fracking resolutions passed by the councils in Abita Springs and Slidell.
Not everyone has come out against the plan, however. Mandeville’s City Council refused to pass an anti-fracking resolution despite encouragement from members of the activist group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany. And business groups such as the Northshore Business Council and GNO Inc. have come out in support of the oil and gas industry in general and Helis’ plan in particular.
Helis has remained largely silent throughout the summer and fall, preferring to reach out in small groups and in official proceedings, like a Nov. 12 public hearing on its application for a drilling permit. That hearing, which featured testimony from experts both for and against Helis’ plan, lasted nearly eight hours. Welsh allowed an additional seven days for written public comment and has promised to make a decision within 30 days of the close of the public comment period.
In addition, an application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a wetlands permit is still under review. Public comment on that application closed last month.
No hearing date has been set yet on Abita Springs’ suit. The case has been allotted to 22nd Judicial District Judge William Knight.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.