The legal battle over whether a fracking oil well can be drilled in St. Tammany Parish will go forward after a state district judge in Baton Rouge refused Monday to grant a state motion to toss out a parish lawsuit seeking to block the well.
Judge William Morvant, of the 19th Judicial District, told attorneys for St. Tammany Parish and Louisiana Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh that the case had at least enough merit to be heard. The state wanted the suit dismissed on the grounds that state officials, not parish officials, are ultimately responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry.
In a lawsuit filed in June, attorneys withthe firm Blue Williams argued on behalf of the parish that local zoning rules — the well is proposed for an area zoned residential — prohibit drilling of such a well. They also argued that the parish had the authority to ban fracking and said the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources could not be trusted to properly oversee the well — a claim based on a Legislative Auditor’s Office report accusing the agency of negligence.
Carl Conrad, who was representing the parish, reiterated those points in court on Monday.
State law “says you must consider zoning” when issuing a drilling permit, Conrad argued. “It says they have a duty to determine whether this area is zoned.”
The land in question is zoned A-3 residential, which does not allow for an oil well, Conrad said. Drilling may be permitted in parts of the parish zoned for industrial use, but that would be “open to interpretation,” he said.
Department of Natural Resources attorney Daniel Henry Jr. argued that parish officials were “reading a negative” into the zoning rules by saying that fracking wouldn’t be allowed even though it is not explicitly banned. In any case, he said, state law trumps parish zoning.
Morvant quizzed Henry on how far the state’s authoritycould go.
“You are telling me that you could issue a permit for a well in downtown Covington, right next to the courthouse?” he asked.
Henry said state law prohibits a well within 500 feet of a structure.
Morvant ultimately decided the case should go forward.
“The question of whether or not the zoning ordinance was considered” still exists, he said. “That alone is a cause of action.”
Morvant didn’t give the parish everything it wanted, however.
Parish attorneys had asked him to issue an injunction prohibiting the commissioner of conservation from issuing any further unitization permits — regulatory documents that define who owns mineral rights to a particular well — in St. Tammany Parish. Morvant didn’t issue that injunction, nor did he render invalid the permit that Helis Oil & Gas Co. has already obtained for the 960-acre tract near Lakeshore High School.
He also said Helis, the company that has proposed drilling the well, should be made a party to the parish’s suit, either by its own intervention or by the parish amending its petition to include the company.
After the hearing, Helis spokesman Greg Beuerman said Monday’s ruling wasn’t unexpected and that the company plans to continue pursuing both the drilling permit and a wetlands permit. The latter request is under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Ever since Helis unveiled plans to drill for oil on the wooded tract about a mile from Lakeshore High School northeast of Mandeville, there has been fierce opposition from some in the parish who have warned of dire consequences to the local water supply and environment from a fracking well.
Helis has offered to conduct baseline and continuing water and air testing around the site and to erect sound baffles to minimize noise. The company also has offered to attempt to restrict the hours of truck traffic to and from the site and to drill the well in two phases: a vertical shaft from which samples would be collected and tested to decide whether to continue, then a horizontal shaft that would be hydraulically fractured, or fracked, to get at the oil that may lie 13,000 feet under St. Tammany Parish.
None of those concessions have mollified opponents of the plan, who were able to persuade the Parish Council to hire Blue Williams and to file suit in East Baton Rouge Parish in an attempt to block the state from allowing the well to be drilled.
No further court dates were set Monday. On Nov. 12, however, the commissioner of conservation is set to hold a public meeting on the requested drilling permit at Lakeshore High School.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.