Controversy over whether a fracking well will be drilled in St. Tammany Parish — an issue that burned white-hot through most of 2014 — has been largely dormant through the first few months of this year. But that is likely to change in the coming weeks, with decisions expected on several fronts.
Since the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources issued Helis Oil & Gas Co. a drilling permit for an exploratory well in the parish in December, all eyes have been on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to which Helis applied for a permit to drill in wetlands because most of its proposed 3.2-acre drilling site is defined as wetlands.
The application remains under review, but the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality this week issued a water quality certificate for the project, a necessary precursor to getting permission from the Corps.
Like many of the various approvals the project has needed, the Corps permit is the subject of a lawsuit. Lawyers working on behalf of the town of Abita Springs filed suit in February in federal court in New Orleans in an effort to prevent the Corps from issuing the permit, arguing that the agency had failed to provide enough information for public comment and illegally denied the town’s request for a public hearing on the application.
The Corps has until mid-April to respond. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice has refused to comment other than to say the permit application is still under review. A Corps spokesman could not comment on when a decision on the permit would be forthcoming.
Meanwhile, attorneys for Abita Springs and Helis are due to appear March 24 in another courtroom, this one a state district court in St. Tammany Parish. In that suit — and a similar one filed by the parish in state court in Baton Rouge — attorneys for the government agencies argue, among other things, that parish zoning laws prevent a well from being drilled at the site Helis has proposed, east of La. 1088 and north of Interstate 12.
An attorney for Helis, however, has asked the St. Tammany court to delay the hearing until after an April 20 hearing scheduled in the Baton Rouge court. The company said that because the Baton Rouge case was filed first and covers much of the same ground as the suit filed in St. Tammany Parish, the St. Tammany hearing should come second.
Lisa Jordan, the attorney representing Abita Springs, has opposed a delay and urged the court to hold the hearing as scheduled.
It does not appear that new federal government rules on fracking issued Friday by the Obama administration will have an impact on the Helis project. A company spokesman said Helis officials plan to review them. But the proposed well would be on private property, and the new regulations would apply only on public land.
Fracking, which has helped fuel a boom in domestic oil and gas production, is a controversial process. Environmentalists argue that it poses a danger to local water supplies and wildlife, while proponents claim that it could help free the U.S. from its dependence on foreign oil imports.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.