Monday turned into a day of rare — if possibly temporary — triumph for opponents of a fracking well planned in St. Tammany Parish.
In the morning, a state judge in Baton Rouge decided that an earlier adverse ruling in a lawsuit against the well should be suspended while the parish appeals. And with that order in hand, parish officials gave the order to halt construction on the 3-acre drilling site just east of La. 1088.
A forum already scheduled for Monday evening, where opponents were going to discuss legal strategy among other topics, turned into a celebration.
But before it got out of hand, an attorney for Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, one of the parties to the appeal, urged caution.
“This is just a temporary victory,” Andrew Jacoby said.
First came the ruling in Baton Rouge. After a hearing, 19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant denied a request from Helis Oil & Gas Co., the company that wants to drill the well, to refuse to allow the parish to pursue what is known as a suspensive appeal of Morvant’s earlier ruling.
In that April ruling, Morvant said the parish could not use its zoning laws to prevent Helis from drilling a state-permitted well.
In allowing the parish’s suspensive appeal to go forward, Morvant agreed to set aside the effects of his own ruling, which attorneys for the parish and Concerned Citizens said meant that Helis could no longer do any work at the site.
Helis disagreed, and a spokesman fired off a couple of strongly worded statements in the late morning and early afternoon.
Those statements said Morvant’s ruling only allowed the parish’s appeal to go forward and that work at the site would continue. The company is still in the process of drilling water wells around the site and has yet to begin drilling the 13,000-foot-deep vertical well that is the first phase of the project, spokesman Greg Beuerman said.
Then came the parish’s stop-work order. Late Monday afternoon, the parish — citing Morvant’s ruling — announced it had ordered Helis to stop all work and had posted placards at the site.
The placards cite Sec. 5.08 of the parish’s development code. That section defines an A-3 residential zoning classification, which is how the tract on which Helis wishes to drill is zoned. The A-3 designation specifically prohibits heavy industrial uses, such as oil and gas drilling, the placards say.
In a late afternoon statement, Helis announced it would comply with the parish’s order. But the company was not happy about it.
“This action is surprising in light of the plain language of state law, which prohibits the parish from issuing such an order,” according to a written statement from Matt Jones, Helis’ attorney. “Although the action is in direct violation of applicable state law, Helis will nonetheless comply.”
But he said the company isn’t taking the decision lying down.
“Helis will at the same time take all steps necessary to see that state law is enforced and that the parish and other parties bear the financial and other consequences of its illegal action,” Jones said.
Finally came the public meeting hosted by Concerned Citizens, a group that has led opposition to the fracking well. Veiled threats couldn’t dampen the jubilation at the forum held in Abita Springs on Monday night.
People gathered to hear updates on Concerned Citizens’ various activist campaigns. Some may have been there to get an up-close look at actor Ian Somerhalder, a Covington native and veteran of the TV shows “Lost” and “The Vampire Diaries.”
Somerhalder, an environmental and animal welfare activist, was listed as the forum’s guest speaker, and like many of his listeners, he shared a sense of satisfaction in the day’s events.
“This was a great day,” he said. But he added that opponents of Helis’ plans could not stop now.
“We have to protect St. Tammany Parish from a small group of wealthy landowners who are imposing their will on us to make money,” he said.
“I will use my platform in every way, shape and form to make sure this doesn’t happen,” said Somerhalder — whose 5.5 million Instagram followers are more than the population of Louisiana.
Somerhalder also drew a loud ovation when he promised to help find the money to pay the legal fees for challenges to Helis’ project, but he said it shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.
“This never should have gotten this far,” he said, calling the influence of the oil and gas industry in Louisiana a sign of the state’s corruption.
While not as direct, Concerned Citizens attorney Jacoby offered a similar caution about Monday’s win.
“This is a small but important step,” he said. “This did not address the merits of whether the drilling permit pre-empts the zoning ordinance.”
That question is for a higher court to decide, Jacoby said. No hearing date in the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal has been set, he said.
Monday’s victories ended a courtroom losing streak for opponents of Helis’ plans.
Morvant was the second judge to rule against the project’s opponents when he issued his April ruling. In the other case, a state judge in St. Tammany rejected an attempt by the town of Abita Springs — which lies to the north and east of the well site — to assert that its zoning laws should prevent the well from being drilled.
Monday’s skirmishes were just the latest in a long series of battles — in courtrooms, council chambers and public meetings — over Helis’ plans, which first became known in April 2014.
The first phase of Helis’ plan is to drill a 13,000-foot-deep exploratory well, from which the company plans to test the area’s geology and take samples. If the tests results are promising, Helis plans to drill a 1-mile horizontal shaft and use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract oil from the ground.
Pairing horizontal drilling with fracking is a relatively new process, and it’s controversial. Proponents say the method has fueled a boom in domestic oil and gas production and made the United States far less dependent on fossil fuel imports.
Opponents counter that the process poses a grave environmental threat, and they have blamed it for a number of problems. Some communities around the country have attempted to ban it, with varying degrees of success.
In St. Tammany, the focus of the opposition has been on the parish’s water supply, which comes from the Southern Hills Aquifer deep underground. Opponents of the well have said fracking poses an unacceptable risk to the aquifer, but proponents have pointed out that many other fracking wells have been drilled through the aquifer in other Louisiana parishes and in Mississippi.
Helis also has pointed to its plans to put an extra barrier between its well and the aquifer.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.