The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources has set Nov. 12 as the date for a public hearing on Helis Oil & Gas Co.’s application for a drilling permit that the New Orleans-based company needs before it can drill for oil in St. Tammany Parish.
The hearing, scheduled for 5 p.m. at Lakeshore High School, will give both allies and opponents of the project a chance to present their cases, said Patrick Courreges, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources.
Holding a public hearing on a drilling permit is extremely rare, Courreges has said. Drilling permits are normally issued just days after the application is submitted. Nevertheless, Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh decided to hold a hearing in this case because of the public outcry that this project has inspired.
Helis has proposed drilling a 13,000-foot vertical well on a wooded 960-acre tract about a mile south of Lakeshore High School. Once the vertical well is drilled, samples will be collected and tested. If those samples reveal enough oil to make adding a horizontal shaft commercially viable, the company plans to use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract oil and natural gas from the ground.
When a well is fracked, water, sand or other materials are injected at high pressure into the ground, where they create tiny fissures in rock through which oil can flow to the horizontal shaft and then to the surface. The process is controversial and has been blamed for a variety of health and environmental problems in other places around the country; some communities have attempted to ban it, with varying degrees of success.
Proponents of fracking argue the method is safe, has economic benefits and can help reduce the country’s dependence on oil and gas imports.
The proposed well in St. Tammany would sit at the southeastern tip of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, a rock formation more than two miles underground that stretches across central Louisiana and includes parts of Mississippi. Oil drilling in the TMS is ramping up, partly due to estimates that the formation may contain as much as 7 billion barrels of oil.
Opposition has focused on the perceived danger to the underground aquifer that Helis will drill through if it is permitted to go forward. The aquifer is the parish’s only suitable source of drinking water, and the consequences of spoiling it would be dire, opponents argue.
A number of groups have sprung up to oppose the well, and the cause has been taken up by the watchdog group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany. Along with the town of Abita Springs, Concerned Citizens formally requested a public hearing on the drilling permit.
The Parish Council has hired the law firm Blue Williams to file suit against DNR to try to prevent the agency from issuing the permit. A hearing on that case is set for later this month.
But there is support for Helis in St. Tammany Parish, notably among business leaders. The Northshore Business Council, a group of executives, issued a statement in favor of Helis’ plan. The St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce has not officially endorsed the plan, but a survey of its members found broad support for oil drilling in the parish.
Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for Helis, said the company has not decided whether it will make a presentation at the Nov. 12 hearing. The company has mostly kept a low profile throughout the controversy, rarely speaking at public meetings.
After the hearing, DNR will collect public comment for another seven days, Courreges said. A decision on whether to issue the permit likely will be made within 30 days of the close of the public comment period.
Helis also must obtain a permit to drill in wetlands from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has asked the company to revise its first application and submit a new one.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.