The steady march of anti-fracking resolutions across St. Tammany’s cities and towns hit a speed bump Thursday night when the Mandeville City Council deferred voting on a resolution after council members said they needed more time to study the issue.
The measure, in fact, was nearly dead on arrival, with a motion and second for its passage — procedural moves necessary for the resolution to be debated — coming only reluctantly. Even the sponsor of the resolution, Councilman David Ellis, said he didn’t expect anyone else to vote for it and wasn’t sure if he would vote for it himself.
Further, he acknowledged that the resolution was “basically meaningless” because authority for permitting the well lies with either parish or state authorities and not with the Mandeville council. The single proposed oil well for St. Tammany Parish lies well outside Mandeville’s city limits.
Councilman Rick Danielson, who seconded Ellis’ motion only after it was apparent that no one else would, then launched into a blistering critique.
“We are spending a lot of time tonight on an issue that we have no authority on, no responsibility on, from a legislative standpoint,” Danielson said. He also complained that he was only “getting one side of the story” because he was hearing only from people opposed to fracking.
“What I would really like is to hear from somebody who can give me the other side of the story,” he said.
Mayor Pro-tem Clay Madden also questioned a provision in the resolution that would give the mayor authority to enter litigation to try to block the well. Mayor Donald Villere has already said he opposes the project.
The council’s comments drew an angry response from many in the audience, including members of the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which had made a 20-minute anti-fracking presentation earlier in the meeting. Several audience members urged the council to vote for the resolution, repeating themes that have been heard at the numerous public meetings on the matter — that fracking could endanger the parish’s groundwater supply, cause other types of environmental damage and lead to a drop in property values.
Despite the pleas from many in attendance, the council voted 4-0 to defer the measure for further study.
Slidell and Abita Springs have already passed anti-fracking resolutions. The Parish Council is working on ordinances to regulate fracking — should it come to the parish — and has filed a suit in state court opposing the plan based on parish zoning rules.
The focus of all of this activity is a plan by Helis Oil & Gas to put a single oil well on a wooded 960-acre tract north of Interstate 12 and east of La. 1088.
Helis plans to drill down nearly 13,000 feet to get at oil it believes sits at the southeast tip of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, a rock formation that stretches hundreds of miles across Louisiana’s midsection and also encompasses parts of southern Mississippi and east Texas. Some estimate that the formation may contain as much as seven billion barrels of oil.
To get the oil out of the ground, Helis plans to use a method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which water, sand and chemicals are injected at high pressure into the rock to create fissures through which the oil and natural gas can be extracted.
The process is controversial. Environmentalists and activists have complained that it causes multiple environmental and health problems, while industry groups have steadfastly insisted that it is a safe and cheap source of oil and gas. Some communities, including Denton, Texas, are trying or have tried to enact bans on fracking, with varying degrees of success.
In St. Tammany, traditionally a parish friendly to the energy industry, the outcry over Helis’ proposal has been swift, vociferous and, in some quarters, unexpected.
Some groups have urged opponents of the plan to pack public meetings and have plotted legal maneuvers to prevent drilling of the well. Groups such as retired Gen. Russel Honoré’s Green Army and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade have made their presence known as well.