Responding to requests from St. Tammany Parish leaders, Helis Oil & Gas — which plans to drill an oil well in the parish — has agreed to a 30-day delay of a scheduled May 13 hearing before the state commissioner of conservation, according to a news release Thursday from Parish President Pat Brister’s office. Helis agreed to the delay to give parish leaders more time to research the proposal, the release said.
The company’s plans have whipped up a storm of opposition among parish residents, who thronged informational meetings and Parish Council chambers to demand that local officials stop Helis from digging the well. On Thursday, some of those opponents applauded the delay but stopped short of calling it a victory.
The delayed hearing is what’s known as a “unitization hearing.” It would set the boundaries of the drilling unit, the piece of land under which the targeted oil lies. Such hearings are generally for the benefit of landowners adjacent to the lease, who can contest the boundaries and argue that their mineral rights may be affected by the drilling.
Such hearings do not get into the type of well involved or its potential impact on the environment, according to Department of Natural Resources spokesman Patrick Courreges.
The latter aspect is what has many parish residents upset. Helis plans to use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process by which water, sand and other chemicals are injected into the ground to create fissures in rock through which oil or natural gas can be extracted. The process has been controversial in other states, and some municipalities in other states have tried to ban it, with varying degrees of success.
On Thursday, Brister said she and Council Chairman Reid Falconer asked Helis to delay the hearing so the parish can do more research and “conduct due diligence” on the proposal. Last week, the Parish Council passed two resolutions related to the plan: to hire a special counsel to protect the parish’s interests in the matter, and to ask the state Department of Natural Resources to delay the hearing. A similar request by State Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, was denied earlier.
Courreges said the agency has no legal basis to delay unitization hearings. “We wind up putting the state in a liability concern,” he said. Any such delay must come at the request of the company, he said, though DNR officials had suggested that Helis push the hearing to a later date, said.
Many of the residents who oppose the well are worried about potential harm to the parish’s drinking water supply, which is drawn from the Southern Hills Aquifer. In her statement, Brister echoed those concerns.
“My administration has been working … to do what is within our power to safeguard our beautiful parish, its pristine waters and our coveted lifestyle,” Brister said.
David Kerstein, Helis’ president, said in the statement that the company had agreed to the request as a “courtesy” to the parish officials, who have been “extremely forthcoming and cooperative as we have pursued this energy project.”
Many residents, on the other hand, have been vociferous in their opposition to the proposal. As a result, Helis has no plans to attend any large town-hall type meetings, a spokesman said. The company plans to meet with people in small groups or one on one, he added.
Councilman Jake Groby, who proposed the resolution to hire an outside attorney to advise the parish of its rights, said he was grateful for the delay.
“This gives us a little breathing room to get our feet under us,” he said. Groby, in whose district the proposed well lies, said he still plans to host a public meeting Monday night at the Castine Center in Mandeville. He invited Helis but has not heard back, he said.
Other opponents of the well said they were glad for the delay.
“It gives us a little more time to dig a little deeper,” said Rick Franzo, who heads the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, an activist group. “I don’t think 30 days is the answer either, but we will take it.”
Franzo said members of his group had planned to attend the hearing in Baton Rouge, and they will attend the rescheduled hearing.
Stephanie Houston Grey, who started an online petition and Facebook page called “Keep Your Fracking Drills Out of St. Tammany,” said the only victory would be a withdrawal of the application.
“A postponement is a postponement, though … any hearings that are held we will be there,” she said.
It wasn’t immediately clear Thursday if the delay in the unitization hearing would have any effect on Helis’ other permit application: one with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for wetlands mitigation around the drilling pad. Helis has applied for a mitigation permit for the 10 acres on which it plans to put the actual well, and the Corps is collecting public comment on the matter until May 15.
Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett could not say Thursday whether a public hearing would be held on the wetlands mitigation permit. A Corps project manager is reviewing the application and the comments, he said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.