A federal judge has rejected an effort by Abita Springs to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to cancel the wetlands permit it issued earlier this year to Helis Oil & Gas Co. for its controversial St. Tammany Parish oil well.
In a 61-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier denied motions by Abita Springs to vacate the permit and granted opposing motions for summary judgment, essentially ruling the town’s claims had no merit. The ruling is a major setback for Abita Springs, which has sued to stop Helis’ project in three different courts.
The town’s lawyers — led by Lisa Jordan, of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic — argued in court earlier this month that the Corps did not provide enough of an opportunity for public comment or consider possible alternative sites for its 3-acre drilling pad, which sits in a wooded area about a mile south of Lakeshore High School off La. 1088 northeast of Mandeville and southeast of Abita Springs.
Other sites must be considered, Jordan argued, because they may provide a location with less impact on wetlands.
During the hearing this month, Barbier grilled Rachael Ruiz, who was assisting Jordan, about whether the town had any suggestions for other sites. Ruiz admitted it didn’t but said the burden to study other sites lay with the Corps. The only evidence in the administrative record was scant notes about a closed-door meeting between Corps representatives and those from the Louisiana Geological Survey.
Barbier ruled that those arguments lacked merit and said the Corps followed its required procedures when it issued the permit.
“Even if the Corps’ decision not to reopen the comment period amounted to procedural error, Abita Springs has failed to demonstrate that the absence of an opportunity to comment on the nonpublic information resulted in any prejudice,” Barbier wrote in his decision.
Jordan, reached Thursday by email, said the decision effectively ends the town’s case against the Corps, barring a decision by Abita Springs’ leaders to appeal.
The legal fight over the project will now move to Baton Rouge, where the town has filed for a judicial review of a separate drilling permit issued by state Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh. That hearing is slated for Jan. 12 in state District Judge Timothy Kelley’s court.
Not surprisingly, Helis expressed satisfaction at Barbier’s ruling. “This ruling soundly rejected all of the town’s legal arguments and attempts to stonewall the drilling of our conventional vertical well,” Helis spokesman Greg Beuerman said in an email. “We look forward to the next steps in the process and to drilling this well as proposed.”
In addition to Abita’s two legal efforts, interested parties are also awaiting a Louisiana appeals court ruling in a different suit in which the parish and the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany are facing off against Welsh and Helis.
In that case, the parish has argued that local zoning ordinances can trump the state’s power to regulate oil and gas drilling. Parish attorneys have argued that because the area where Helis wants to drill is zoned residential, an industrial use like drilling for oil is prohibited, and the state, when issuing the permit, must take that into account. The state has argued that power to regulate where companies drill for oil and gas lies exclusively in Baton Rouge.
The company’s plans, since they became public in April 2014, have generated a storm of controversy. Helis has agreed to drill a vertical exploratory well and collect samples to test before attempting to use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract any oil or gas that lies 13,000 feet underground. If the company decides to frack the well, it will have to apply for a new wetlands permit to build a larger, 10-acre drilling pad. A new drilling permit will not be required.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.