People packed two venues in St. Tammany Parish on Thursday night, waving signs, cheering anti-oil-drilling comments and jeering drilling advocates.
The impetus for the public outcry was the proposal by Helis Energy, before the Louisiana commissioner of conservation, to drill a single oil well on a 960-acre tract near Interstate 12 and La. 1088 in the Mandeville area.
Helis is proposing to drill a 13,000-foot-deep well near Lakeshore High School. The well would utilize an oil-extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which water, sand and other chemicals are injected into the ground to create fissures in rock through which oil or natural gas can be extracted.
Fracking has been controversial in other places in the country, and some municipalities have tried to block its use.
Helis has a hearing scheduled before the commissioner of conservation on May 13. That hearing will be to set the boundaries of the drilling area, and is normally the first step in the process of issuing a state permit.
Since news of the planned well became public, parish residents have mobilized through meetings and social media to form a vociferous opposition that was in full voice Thursday night at the two venues.
One was the Abita Springs Town Hall, where a public “informational meeting” was being held. The other was the Parish Council chambers, where the council was taking up several items related to the proposed well, including a proposal by Councilman Jake Groby to hire a lawyer specializing in oil and gas issues to represent the parish’s interests.
Groby’s item drew impassioned reactions from members of the audience, many of whom carried signs reading “Frack Free Mandeville,” “Protect St. Tammany” or “Frack No,” and who reacted loudly to comments during the debate. The outbursts eventually drew a warning from council Chairman Reid Falconer that continued unruliness would result in expulsions.
Indeed, one audience member, Amanda Fisher, was escorted out after calling an amendment to cap spending on the lawyer at $25,000 until a scope of work is created “ridiculous.”
Councilman Steve Stefancik’s amendment also called for removing from Groby’s resolution the requirement that the lawyer specialize in oil and gas; he said the parish may need a lawyer who specializes in constitutional law. Stefancik’s amendment passed 9-4, drawing jeers from the crowd gathered in the room.
Before she was removed, Fisher urged the council to approve the hiring of a lawyer with oil and gas experience, which she said is needed to guard the parish’s interests. Cheers greeted her remarks.
Members of the council debated Stefancik’s proposed spending cap, saying it would be difficult to hire a lawyer with the necessary qualifications for $25,000, especially when Helis’ first hearing before the state is only 12 days away.
“I think it’s a mistake to set a $25,000 cap,” Councilman Gene Bellisario said. “Who do you think you are going to get?”
He said the need is too urgent to impose a low payment cap.
After passing Stefancik’s amendment, the council approved Groby’s resolution 12-1. Bellisario cast the only no vote, saying he could not vote for a measure with a $25,000 cap.
No action was taken on two other proposals aimed at the proposed well, both put forward by Councilman Marty Gould. A proposal to establish a protective zone around any well was withdrawn so it could be refined. A proposal to give the parish power to require more action from companies to protect the quality of parish roads was introduced and will come up for public hearing at the next council meeting in June.
Just about three miles away, in Abita Springs, residents filled the aisles of the town’s municipal building, cheering anti-fracking speakers, hissing at a movie presented by the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, and giving an extended ovation to retired Army Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré, a fracking critic.
The meeting was called by Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons and moderated by the St. Tammany Parish League of Women Voters.
Though the meeting was described as “informational,” Lemons has been vocal in expressing his worries about the effect of fracking on the aquifer from which Abita draws its water.
Scott Eustis, a coastal wetlands specialist with the Gulf Restoration Network, was greeted with cheers as he listed several concerns about the fracking process.
“We need more than two days to write our letters to our public agencies,” he said. The deadline to write letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about Helis’ request for a wetlands permit for the site is Monday.
Eustis outlined other concerns as well, such as impacts of drilling pads on wildlife and the potential for drilling sand to cause lung scarring.
John Lopez of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation urged caution, saying fracking is different in different areas. But if the well is successful, he said, change will come swiftly.
“It’s important to be ahead of it,” he said.
Earlier in the day, about 30 people showed up at the Abita Springs Trailhead to hear from Honoré, who was scheduled to appear there at 2 p.m. But he was delayed and made his only appearance at the Abita Springs meeting.