After more than a year of public tumult, the first stage of a controversial oil well project in St. Tammany Parish could begin drilling next month and be finished around the start of the school year in August.
After receiving a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wetlands permit earlier this month, Helis Oil & Gas Co. workers have begun improving the 1-mile private road that stretches from near Lakeshore High School to the planned well site.
On Friday, workers were moving dirt to level the road and planks had been installed at the widened entrance, all to prepare for the trucks that will come through when drilling begins.
Once the road is ready and a 3-acre drilling pad is complete, the company will move a drilling rig in and set it up on the site, Helis’ Mike Barham said Friday.
An initial vertical well will take about 30 days to drill, after which the rig will be moved off-site. That could be as early as mid-August.
After sinking the initial well and examining underground samples, the company will have a good idea if it wants to move forward with phase two of the project, which would involve drilling an approximately mile-long horizontal shaft and then using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract oil.
But before Helis can do that, the company must obtain a second wetlands permit from the Corps for a much-larger 10-acre drilling pad. Getting that permit could take months.
The company on Friday, however, was keen to show off two air and noise monitoring stations, one installed at Lakeshore High School and the other just north of Interstate 12 and west of La. 1088.
The two stations, which already are collecting data, will use a variety of instruments to monitor the air and noise levels at their respective sites. A third air and noise monitoring station will be set up on the drilling pad.
A subcontractor, Tetra Tech, has installed the monitoring stations. The sites will check for a number of airborne pollutants, including nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide as well as particles, according to Doug Herlocker, of Tetra Tech.
Each monitoring station includes a 33-foot meteorological tower to monitor wind direction and other weather data, Herlocker said. A technician will visit each site every three days, and the readings will be monitored remotely as well.
The data now coming in will be used to set baselines before the well is drilled, according to Helis’ Barham.
The company also has tested nine private water wells south of the drilling site and plans to share those results with the homeowners and the parish. In fact, all environmental monitoring results will be shared with the state and the parish, though how that will happen is still being worked out.
The St. Tammany Parish school system has hired an independent contractor to study the testing protocol and results at the monitoring site at Lakeshore High School, spokeswoman Meredith Mendez said.
None of that is likely to mollify Helis’ critics, including Parish Council members, who have been rebuffed by the courts in efforts to argue that parish zoning laws should prevent the site from being used for oil drilling.
A suit filed by Abita Springs against the Corps for refusing to hold a public hearing on Helis’ wetlands permit application is still pending in federal court, and the Parish Council as well as the activist group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany have appealed Judge William Morvant’s ruling in state court in Baton Rouge.
Since word of Helis’ plans became known in April 2014, vocal opposition has continually dogged the company’s efforts. In addition to numerous public meetings, the opposition persuaded the state to hold a lengthy — and unprecedented — public hearing on Helis’ application for a drilling permit, which eventually was granted with a list of conditions, including some of the monitoring Helis has now put in place.
Besides the legal challenges, there have been public protests, recall petitions and threats to collect enough signatures to put a fracking ban before the parish’s voters.
Opposition has centered around the company’s plan to use a process by which water, man-made sand and other chemicals are pumped deep into the ground at high pressure, where they create tiny cracks in rock through which oil and gas can be extracted. Fracking horizontal shafts is a relatively new process, and proponents have credited it with a boom in domestic oil and gas production that has lowered demand for imported oil.
Opponents, on the other hand, have blamed fracking for a wide variety of environmental and health problems, and some communities have tried to ban it, with varying degrees of success.
Many of those same arguments have been deployed in St. Tammany over Helis’ well. In particular, opponents have pointed to an alleged threat to the parish’s water supply in the Southern Hills aquifer system, through which the well will be drilled.
A report earlier this month from the Environmental Protection Agency said the agency had been able to find no evidence of widespread or systematic impact on drinking water supplies from fracking. The report noted, however, that the findings were limited by a lack of pre-fracking data at many sites.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.