Helis Oil & Gas Co., the company hoping to put a fracking well in St. Tammany Parish, on Wednesday submitted applications for a wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a drilling permit from the state’s Office of Conservation, a spokesman said.
This is the company’s second application for a wetlands permit. Corps officials asked the company to revise its original application after geologists raised questions about whether the proposed 10-acre drilling pad would be necessary for the well’s first stage, a vertical-only shaft from which samples will be taken to see if oil exists in sufficient quantities underground to make the well viable. The new application outlines a much smaller drilling pad of 3.2 acres.
As part of its wetlands permit application, the company also has submitted an application to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for a water quality certification. A DEQ spokesman said he had not seen it yet and could not comment.
Late last month, Helis received approval of the planned drilling tract from the state commissioner of conservation, a regulatory hurdle that had to be cleared before a drilling permit could be issued.
A Corps spokesman said the company’s wetlands permit application came in about 3:45 p.m. Wednesday and was being reviewed to ensure it was complete. Once that review is completed, which could take 10 days or more, the application will be made available publicly and a public comment period will begin, spokesman Ricky Boyette said.
Helis’ five-page application for a drilling permit asks for permission to drill a 13,374-foot straight, or vertical, well shaft on the site. The box on the application for a horizontal well, which would be necessary before the company could frack the well, is not checked.
As part of what parish officials called a compromise with the company, Helis agreed to drill only a vertical well at first, then collect samples for testing. The testing could take three or four months. Only if the samples show sufficient quantities of oil to make the well commercially viable would the company then seek permission to drill a horizontal shaft as well.
If the samples show there is not enough oil, Helis would plug the vertical well and abandon it.
A drilling permit is an administrative tool that gives state officials information on the location of the well and who will be running it, Department of Natural Resources spokesman Patrick Courreges said. He said getting it is not as rigorous a process as getting a wetlands permit, which allows development in an area designated as protected wetlands.
Helis plans to drill near the south end of a wooded 960-acre tract near Lakeshore High School northeast of Mandeville. The tract sits near the southeastern tip of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, a rock formation that stretches across central Louisiana and is estimated to contain some 7 billion barrels of oil.
To get at the oil, companies are using a method combining horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. In Helis’ case, it would drill a mile-long horizontal shaft, then pump millions of gallons of water, sand or some other ceramic proppant and other chemicals into the shaft at high pressure to create fissures in the rock formation through which oil could be extracted.
Proponents of fracking say it has allowed far greater domestic production of oil and thus reduced American reliance on imported oil. Opponents have charged that the process poses unknown environmental risks, and activists in other states, such as Texas, Pennsylvania and New York, have tried to ban it, with varying degrees of success.
Unlike in neighboring parishes like Tangipahoa and St. Helena, or in Amite County, Mississippi, where fracking operations have been greeted with open arms, many residents in St. Tammany have vocally opposed Helis’ plan. They have vowed to fight it at every turn, including in the courts.
Spurred by their opposition, the parish has filed suit to stop the Office of Conservation from issuing a drilling permit, saying the parish’s zoning rules prohibit oil drilling on the land Helis owns and citing a recent legislative audit that said the Department of Natural Resources had been negligent in inspecting wells.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.