Louisiana Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh has acceded to requests by Abita Springs officials and the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany and agreed to hold a public hearing in St. Tammany Parish before issuing Helis Oil & Gas Co. a permit to drill for oil northeast of Mandeville.
The time and place of the hearing have not been decided but will be published at least 30 days in advance, according to Patrick Courreges, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Because of that requirement, the hearing probably won’t be held before early November, Courreges said in an email.
After the hearing, the department will allow at least seven more days for the public to submit written comments before it makes a decision on whether to issue Helis a drilling permit.
Calling such a hearing is very unusual. Courreges said it is the only one he has heard of.
Granting a drilling permit normally is an administrative matter that simply seeks to collect information on who will be in charge of the well, he said.
But after getting requests from Abita Springs — whose Board of Aldermen passed a resolution opposing Helis’ plan earlier this year — and the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, a watchdog group that has vowed to fight the plan to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary, attorneys for Welsh’s office determined that a public hearing could be held for a drilling permit, Courreges said.
Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany President Rick Franzo hailed the decision as “great news.”
The decision gives the group “more time to plan battle strategies,” Franzo said in an email.
The drilling-permit hearing is the second significant roadblock Helis has faced in getting the necessary permits to drill its well. Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — from which Helis must obtain a permit to construct the well pad in wetlands — asked the company to revise and resubmit its application, a move that triggers a new public notice and public comment period. The revised application is under review.
The company has not been officially notified of Welsh’s decision to hold a public hearing in St. Tammany, a spokeswoman for Helis said Saturday, but she said the move appears to reflect the department’s commitment to openness.
“Helis has been committed to transparency since the outset of our project, and we view this to be a natural step in the permitting process,” Virginia Miller said. “We anticipate making a full presentation in support of our application.”
Since plans for the well became known in April, Helis has faced vociferous opposition in St. Tammany Parish. That opposition is focused on the company’s proposed method of oil extraction: horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Helis plans to drill nearly 13,000 feet down and then, if initial tests are promising, drill a horizontal shaft nearly a mile long before fracking the well.
When a well is fracked, water, sand and other chemicals are injected deep into that horizontal shaft. There, the mixture creates tiny fissures in rock through which oil can be extracted. Fracking is controversial; communities in New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states have tried to ban it after blaming it for numerous health and environmental problems. Some of those attempts have been successful; others have not.
In St. Tammany, the opposition has focused on the well’s possible impact on the aquifer that supplies the parish’s drinking water. In addition to Abita Springs and Concerned Citizens, the Parish Council has mounted a legal challenge to the plan, filing suit in state court in Baton Rouge in an effort to prevent Welsh from issuing the drilling permit. The suit cites St. Tammany’s zoning laws as well as a recent Legislative Auditor’s Office report that accused the Department of Natural Resources of being negligent in inspecting the state’s thousands of other wells. A hearing on the suit is set for late October.
Fracking is enjoying a national boom, and proponents insist it is safe and helps reduce American dependence on imported natural gas and oil.
Helis’ planned St. Tammany well sits at the southeastern tip of a formation known as the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, a deposit that stretches across the middle of Louisiana like a belt and has been estimated to contain 7 billion barrels of oil.
Other Tuscaloosa Shale wells are being drilled and fracked in Tangipahoa, St. Helena and East and West Feliciana parishes, as well as Amite County, Mississippi. In none of those places was the drilling controversial; in fact, in most places, it was welcomed with open arms.
There is support for Helis in St. Tammany Parish as well. Parish President Pat Brister hasn’t endorsed the proposed well but has said she thinks the parish is powerless to stop the state from issuing a drilling permit. Her main objective is to make sure that the parish’s air, water and soil quality is protected and that the parish’s infrastructure is not negatively impacted by the drilling, she has said.
The Northshore Business Council, an executive lobbying group, has issued a statement in favor of Helis’ plan, and even though the St. Tammany West Chamber has remained officially neutral, it published a survey of its members that showed Helis had broad support within that organization.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.