St. Tammany Parish has a new f-word: fracking.
A proposed oil well near Mandeville — which would employ the extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — hasn’t produced one drop of oil yet. But even before a permit has been issued for it, it has created a gush of opposition among residents and local officials.
Ever since word leaked out a few weeks ago that Helis Energy was seeking a state permit to drill a 13,500-foot-deep oil well on a 960-acre tract north of Interstate 12 near Lakeshore High School, some of St. Tammany’s normally energy industry-friendly officials have been scrambling to see if it can be stopped.
Last week, residents packed a meeting in Mandeville, caustically and sometimes loudly reacting to representatives from the state’s Department of Natural Resources who were there to provide information on the fracking and permitting processes.
DNR has already rejected a call from state Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, to delay a May 13 unitization hearing — the first step in the state’s permitting process.
Parish Councilman Jake Groby now has appealed to both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to deny Helis additional permits needed for wetlands mitigation at the site.
Groby said his primary concern is the project’s effect on the Southern Hills aquifer, from which the parish draws its drinking water.
“Documented cases of contamination and unexplained seepage of methane, oil and fracturing chemicals have been reported at drinking-water wells in many drilling sites across the country,” Groby wrote in a letter to DEQ.
Though the parish has several streams and rivers, Groby questioned whether they could provide the volume of water the parish would need if anything happens to the aquifer. Even if they could, he said, the parish doesn’t have the infrastructure needed to pump and treat surface water before it can be used for drinking.
Groby knows something about municipal water systems: He’s a superintendent with St. Bernard Parish’s water system.
But he also is concerned about the well’s potential long-term effects.
“Just as cigarettes were once deemed to be nonhazardous and asbestos was deemed nonhazardous, we now have learned that the long-term health implications are far-reaching,” he wrote to the Corps of Engineers.
Groby said in an interview that he has received 20 to 30 emails from constituents asking him to help stop the well but none from those who support allowing fracking to happen in St. Tammany.
Fracking is a process by which water, sand and other chemicals are injected into the ground, causing the subterranean rock to fracture and thereby allowing oil or gas to be pumped out. It has been blamed for a number of environmental and health problems in states where it has been used, though industry officials insist that it is safe and that the St. Tammany aquifer would be well protected.
Groby said he plans to ask the Parish Council to consider hiring a lawyer who specializes in oil and gas law to help protect the parish’s interests.
Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons, who also has been vocal with his concerns about the well, said any damage to the aquifer would have catastrophic consequences for Abita Springs.
He said Friday he was still gathering information about the fracking process. To facilitate that and to help Abita Springs residents, he has called an informational meeting for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Abita Springs Town Hall. Representatives from DNR, the energy industry and the Corps of Engineers will be on hand to make presentations and take questions from the audience, he said.
The meeting is being co-sponsored by the St. Tammany League of Women Voters, who planned to invite Helis and the landowner, Edward Poitevent, to attend as well.
Concern over the planned well is not limited to public officials. Opponents have created an online petition opposing the well at moveon.org. As of Friday, it had 1,009 signatures. A Facebook page called “Keep Your Fracking Drills Out of St. Tammany” had 422 “likes” on Friday afternoon.
But there may not be much the parish or residents can do.
Under the principle of pre-emption, lower levels of government cannot pass regulations that conflict with state law. In addition, state law prohibits any other agency from interfering with drilling the state has authorized.
But that apparently won’t stop the opponents from trying. Residents have deluged the Office of the Commissioner of Conservation — who will conduct the unitization hearing May 13 — with emails urging the commissioner to deny Helis a permit or asking how they can stop the well. Those residents also have urged the Parish Council to enact a moratorium on drilling in the parish — a tactic that has been tried in other states, with varying degrees of success.
St. Tammany Bureau Chief Sara Pagones contributed to this story.