As the St. Tammany Parish Council prepares to consider this week hiring an attorney to seek an injunction against a proposed oil well in an undeveloped area north of Interstate 12, Helis Oil & Gas has sent letters to several public officials decrying “misinformation” about its plans and insisting that the proposed well would have minimal impact on parish residents or the environment.
Helis officials “will be guests in your community” if the project goes forward, Helis President David Kerstein wrote in the letters. “We have a special obligation to conduct our operations in a manner that is respectful and disciplined. That is our commitment to you.”
Kerstein detailed the company’s history: founded by a Greek immigrant in 1934; wells in Wyoming and Louisiana and in onshore, offshore and inland waters; experience with fracking and 60 wells at depths similar to the proposed St. Tammany well.
He also sought to refute some claims by opponents of the project that he called “unfounded” or “misleading,” though he didn’t name any particular person or group.
He quoted an unnamed source as saying the amount of truck traffic generated by the project would amount to a “military style convoy.” Though they have not used those terms, parish officials have said they are looking into ways to help ensure the parish’s roads will be able to handle the anticipated increase in truck traffic that could result from an active oil well.
“It is important to know that our plan calls for access to our well site only on state or federal highways and privately owned roads,” Kerstein wrote. “We have no plans to access parish roads with large vehicles.”
Kerstein also reiterated that the company does not plan to take any water for drilling from the aquifer that provides the parish’s drinking water, accusing those who have said otherwise of “not fully understanding our project, or wishing to misrepresent it to the public.”
At least one parish councilman was unimpressed.
Jake Groby, who represents the district in which the proposed well would be drilled and who has been a steadfast opponent of it, said Kerstein’s letter “seems to deepen my apprehensions” for the projects.
In a letter back to Kerstein, Groby castigated him for having refused to attend any of the multiple public meetings on the subject, saying Helis owes it to the parish’s citizens to show up in person and explain why the project would be safe.
“Only representatives from Helis Oil can fully explain these issues and address the parish concerns,” Groby wrote.
A Helis spokeswoman said Wednesday that the firm would continue to “get accurate information out in a respectful way,” and that the public meetings — often packed with vocal activists, waving signs and some in costume — have not been environments conducive to productive dialogue.
“You don’t have to agree with us,” spokeswoman Virginia Miller said, pointing out that Helis officials met with representatives of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. After that meeting, the foundation issued a report saying it had serious reservations about the project and urging that it be delayed, if not halted altogether.
Kerstein also said his company is willing to work with local officials, pointing to its recent agreement to drill only a vertical test well initially and check the results for three to four months before deciding whether to drill the horizontal portion and insert fracking fluids into the well.
The furor over Helis’ plan is expected to continue Thursday night, when the Parish Council will take up a proposal by Councilman Marty Gould to hire a special attorney to seek an injunction prohibiting the issuance of any drilling permits for wells in St. Tammany Parish. The authority to issue a drilling permit lies with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, but 13 of the 14 Parish Council members and Parish Present Pat Brister have sent a letter to DNR urging it to reject Helis’ application based on zoning issues.
Citing a recent legislative auditor’s report accusing DNR of being lax in inspecting wells around the state, Gould said the state cannot be trusted to ensure that the wells are safe.
Last month, the council approved the hiring of a special counsel to protect the parish’s interests, but Gould’s resolution would specify a particular task for that attorney.
A citizens group, the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, has vowed to fight the well “all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
The next key date in the well permitting process is June 16, when the public comment period on Helis’ application for a wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closes. After that, the Corps will determine whether to hold a public hearing on the application.
The next day, Helis is scheduled to go before the state’s commissioner of conservation for a “unitization hearing.” That hearing is to set the boundaries of Helis’ drilling “unit”: the 960-acre tract from which the company plans to extract oil. Once the unit is approved, Helis can apply to the state for a drilling permit. The well site itself will cover only 10 acres, Helis has said.
The company plans to use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a recently popularized method of drilling that allows companies to get at previously unreachable oil and gas reserves buried deep underground. The St. Tammany well is at the southeast tip of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, a rock formation that some have estimated to hold as much as 7 billion barrels of oil.
When a well is fracked, water, sand and chemicals are injected into the formation, propping open fissures in the rock through which oil and gas can be pumped to the surface.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.