Wednesday night’s public meeting on a proposed fracking well in St. Tammany Parish differed from previous forums in one key respect: Representatives from Helis Oil & Gas Co., the company that has applied for a permit to drill the well, made a lengthy and detailed presentation.
The hearing was also unique in that it was hosted by the state’s Office of Conservation, which is considering Helis’ application for a permit.
Hearings on such applications are rare; no one connected to this one could recall another.
The hearing was called after the state agency received requests from the town of Abita Springs and the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany organization, a leader of the intense opposition in the parish to the proposed well.
In other respects, the meeting was very similar to previous forums on the topic.
A restive and sign-carrying crowd filled the Lakeshore High School gym, cheering some speakers and jeering others in a lengthy and drawn-out hearing that all knew would end without any decision on the permit by Conservation Commissioner James Welsh.
Even after nearly three hours of testimony, though, one thing seemed clear: The battle is not over.
Attorneys and experts for Helis went first and spent nearly two hours — including about 10 minutes to correct sound-system issues — trying to reassure the crowd that Helis’ proposed plans are safe and are designed both to extract oil from deep underground and to protect the environment.
The first expert to testify was geologist Bill Dale, who repeated some of the same facts that Helis has been citing since the issue first came up in April.
He recited the number of oil wells already drilled in the parish — 76 — and the distance the well would sit from Interstate 12 — 1,837 feet — and from Lakeshore High School — 1.2 miles.
Helis’ next witness was Adam Bourgoyne, a retired dean of LSU’s engineering school. He said he had reviewed Helis’ plans and the well would be a fairly simple one to drill because it wouldn’t involve high temperatures or high pressure.
“I have concluded that Helis has met the permit requirements,” he said.
During his lengthy testimony, the crowd grew more and more restive, at times shouting out that they couldn’t hear what was being said and at other times jeering Bourgoyne’s statements.
John Connor, an environmental scientist, then provided a primer on the fracking technique and said that Helis planned to use three layers of protection between the well and the Southern Hills Aquifer, where the parish gets its drinking water.
Many opponents of Helis’ well have claimed that hydraulically fracturing, or fracking, such a well could negatively impact the aquifer.
Helis is a good, “not perfect,” company, Connor said, but that he found it has exceeded requirements for drilling as safe a well as possible.
He said the company would not conceal the chemicals used in the fracking process but would list them on the website fracfocus.com within 20 days after the well is drilled.
Attorney Lisa Jordan, who represents Abita Springs, spent about 30 minutes cross-examining the three witnesses, repeatedly asking if they planned to put their claims into a “legally enforceable document.” None of the three witnesses, who are not employees of Helis, would answer.
At press time, the hearing was in recess, but Jordan had promised to put on a witness of her own.
After that, the floor was to be opened to public comment.
Welsh’s office will accept written comments for seven days before he issues a decision on Helis’ request for a drilling permit.
The hearing was the latest in a series of public events that have been held in St. Tammany since Helis’ plans became public.
The company has applied for a permit to drill a 13,000-foot-deep well on a wooded 960-acre tract near the site of Wednesday’s hearing.
To get oil out of the underground rock formation, Helis intends to use hydraulic fracturing, a process by which water, sand and chemicals are injected deep into the ground to create tiny fissures in rock through which oil and natural gas can be extracted.
Helis’ proposed well lies at the southeastern tip of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, a rock formation that stretches across Louisiana and is estimated to contain as much as 7 billion barrels of oil.
Helis still has an application pending before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to drill in wetlands.
Furthermore, St. Tammany Parish has filed suit against the Office of Conservation in an effort to prevent the state from issuing a drilling permit. Late last month, a judge refused to dismiss that suit.
In a written paper submitted to Welsh in advance of the hearing, Helis’ attorneys said the company has met all the regulatory requirements for receiving a well permit and that one should be issued.
“Helis is quite confident that its operations will have minimal impact on the safe and efficient functioning of (Lakeshore High School) and subsequent development of adjacent property,” the letter said.
The letter also scoffed at the notion that parish zoning ordinances could trump state authority to issue the permit, a key claim by groups opposed to the well. “It is clear that the commissioner of conservation is not required to consider local zoning in ordinances in connection with issuance of a drilling permit,” the letter said.
Well opponents were expected to dispute those claims and make the case that the well would present a risk to the underground aquifer, especially because of the fracking technique Helis plans to employ if initial tests indicate the site would be productive enough to justify the expense.