The latest pro-fracking voice straining to be heard in St. Tammany Parish is that of the Louisiana Landowners’ Association, a conservative lobbying group whose stated purpose is “protecting the rights of individuals to own, manage, develop, use and dispose of land without undue interference from the government.”
The group last week sent a letter to the Parish Council urging the council not to spend any public money to fight a plan to put a fracking well near Mandeville.
The letter, dated Aug. 28 and sent by LLA general counsel M. Taylor Darden, calls the parish’s legal efforts to prevent Louisiana Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh from issuing a drilling permit “improper,” “unprecedented” and “beyond the scope of this Council’s jurisdiction.”
The letter says authority for issuing a drilling permit to Helis Oil & Gas, which has announced plans to drill an oil well north of Interstate 12 and east of Louisiana 1088, lies solely with Welsh and that the parish should not try to “usurp” that authority.
“Any use of taxpayer dollars to frustrate or thwart the ability of an oil and gas operator to obtain a legally sanctioned drilling permit is not only a waste of public funds, but a violation” of the state constitution, the letter says.
The letter refers to a lawsuit filed by the parish in state district court in Baton Rouge to prevent Welsh from issuing the permit, saying parish zoning doesn’t permit oil drilling on the wooded site and that a recent report found that the state’s Department of Natural Resources’ negligence in inspecting wells failed to provide sufficient protection for local residents.
The suit was filed after activists packed meeting halls, begging the council to spend its money to fight Helis’ plan. A major sore spot for activists is Helis’ plan to use horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract oil from the site. When a well is fracked, water, sand and other chemicals are injected deep underground — about 13,000 feet in this case — into a mile-long horizontal shaft drilled through rock formations. The mixture creates tiny fissures in the rock through which oil can be extracted.
Fracking has made vast new reserves of oil available for domestic production. The Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, a formation that stretches from St. Tammany Parish into eastern Texas across the middle of Louisiana, is estimated to contain as much as 7 billion barrels of oil. Increasing domestic production, supporters argue, will help the United States reduce reliance on oil imports.
Opponents, however, have blamed fracking for a number of environmental problems, including groundwater contamination, crop and livestock poisonings and earthquakes. People who live near wells have claimed a variety of health problems. Several communities across the nation, in Texas, New York and Colorado, among other states, have attempted to ban or halt fracking, with varying levels of success. A similar movement is underway in St. Tammany.
Last week, Welsh issued Helis a “unit order” — a preliminary document that approves Helis’ proposed 960-acre tract of land for drilling. Helis still has to apply for a drilling permit. The company also needs a wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which recently said the company’s application must be revised and resubmitted.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter @faimon.