The legal tennis match over the future of a fracking well in St. Tammany Parish saw another volley Friday afternoon when parish attorneys filed a motion asking a judge in East Baton Rouge Parish to prevent the state from issuing a drilling permit to Helis Oil & Gas Co.
A copy of the motion was not immediately available, though the East Baton Rouge Clerk of Court’s website showed it was filed at 3:07 p.m. Friday. It was unclear when a hearing might be held.
The filing was a response to Helis’ application this week for a drilling permit from the state’s commissioner of conservation, a permit the parish has sued to prevent the state from issuing. Helis also announced the filing of a revised wetlands permit application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Drilling permits are frequently issued just a few days after the application is received, according to Department of Natural Resources spokesman Patrick Courreges. In Helis’ case, however, a state official asked the company to provide more information on exactly how the well would be drilled. The company promised to provide that information next week, Courreges said.
Although it has been controversial, Helis’ application is being processed just like any other one, Courreges said. To do otherwise would open the Department of Natural Resources up to a claim from the company that it was being unfairly treated, he added.
Even if a drilling permit is issued, Helis is likely still months away from actually drilling the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, well planned for a 960-acre plot near Lakeshore High School northeast of Mandeville.
The company first will drill a 13,000-foot-deep vertical well into the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, an underground rock formation that stretches across central Louisiana and parts of Mississippi. Samples from the vertical well will be tested to see if the formation contains enough oil to make the well commercially viable.
If the test results are positive, the company then would drill a nearly milelong horizontal shaft and frack the well, using water, ceramic materials and other chemicals to create and prop open tiny fissures in rock through which the oil could be extracted.
Critics blame fracking for a host of environmental and health problems, and some communities in other states have attempted to ban it. Proponents, on the other hand, say the method has opened up vast oil and gas resources, creating wealth and reducing America’s dependence on imported oil.
In most of Louisiana, the latter is the dominant view, but in St. Tammany, the former view has a strong and vocal following.
In addition to the drilling permit, Helis also must get a wetlands permit to construct a drilling pad on the site. Last month, Corps officials asked Helis to revise its wetlands permit application, which the company did. That second application is still under review by the Corps; if deemed sufficient, it will be put out for public comment.
The second application became necessary after geologists raised questions about whether the vertical well would find enough oil to make a horizontal well necessary. And because the company already had agreed to drill a vertical well and test samples before drilling the horizontal shaft, the Corps asked Helis to reduce the size of its drilling pad from 10 acres to 3 acres.
Opposition to Helis’ proposal has been vocal since the plan became public in April. Two Parish Council members said Friday they had been inundated with requests for the parish to file for a temporary restraining order to block issuance of the permit. Activists became concerned when the company announced earlier this week that it had filed its application.
Emails and phone messages left with Carl Conrad, of Blue Williams, the law firm the parish hired to pursue litigation against DNR, were not returned. Last week, the council allotted an extra $125,000 to pay the firm for its work, in addition to the $25,000 allotted when the firm was first hired.
Rick Franzo, president of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, a watchdog group that opposes fracking, said he was glad to see the parish attorneys file for the hearing.
“Honestly, this is something they should have done a while back,” he said. CCST, which went to court to get the Corps to extend the comment period on Helis’ first wetlands permit application, said his group would continue to fight the well, no matter what the parish does.
“I can’t tell you that we are going to file a lawsuit,” he said. “But I can tell you it is something that’s on our radar, and we are considering and looking at.”
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.