In what the company calls a “routine part of the process” of applying for permits, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality have requested that Helis Oil & Gas consider alternative drilling sites for a proposed oil well in St. Tammany Parish and provide greater details on contingency plans and the expected environmental impact of the proposed well.
The 10-acre site where Helis proposes to put an oil well is 91 percent wetlands, and the company should consider alternative sites “that would be economically viable and environmentally less damaging,” according to the Corps’ letter.
The Corps “presumes that alternatives exist in this region, in which the proposed activity could be sited,” the letter says.
The letter also outlines comments from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries that question aspects of the project, including the plans for disposal of fill material and the planned inclusion of an open waste pit within the 10-acre site. Specifically, the letter references concerns by LDWF officials that a storm like Hurricane Isaac could cause the pit to overflow and cause damage to surrounding soils, wetlands and water bodies.
Until it gets a response, the Corps cannot consider Helis’ application any further, the letter says.
In a separate letter, the Department of Environmental Quality asks the company to provide greater detail on proposed road improvements to Log Cabin Road, the proposed disposal of fill material and plans for drainage, among other things.
But despite the apparent seriousness of the concerns in the letters, representatives from the Corps, Helis and DEQ said Monday that such letters are a normal part of the process of acquiring a wetlands permit — which the company needs before it can begin construction on its planned 13,000-foot-deep well.
“There is nothing unusual about the request. This is a routine part of the process,” Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for Helis, said Monday. “It doesn’t represent a delay in the process.”
The company is preparing a written response to the questions raised in both letters, and the response should be ready “very soon,” Beuerman said.
Since first coming to light in April, Helis’ planned well has been controversial. The company plans to use a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract oil buried more than 2 miles underground. In fracking, water, sand and chemicals are injected at high pressure underground to create tiny cracks in rock through which oil and natural gas can flow into a pipe and be pumped to the surface.
The process has generated considerable opposition in other communities around the country. In Denton, Texas, residents circulated a petition to ban fracking that will go to the city’s voters in the fall. In New York, the state’s highest court recently upheld two towns’ right to forbid the practice.
In St. Tammany, public meetings to discuss the plan have been thronged by angry activists waving signs and jeering those who offer an opposing view.
Oil companies and industry officials have insisted the process is safe and offers an economical way to help the United States reduce its dependence on foreign oil.
Helis plans to drill into a vast formation known as the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, which stretches from St. Tammany westward across central Louisiana like a belt. Although oil activity in the shale has only recently begun to pick up substantially, production seems to be on the increase, and industry estimates say the formation could hold as much as 7 billion barrels of oil.
The optimism over shale oil is so high, in fact, that energy companies are pushing the federal government to reverse a nearly three-decade ban on exporting domestic crude oil.
In an attempt to help mollify north shore critics, Helis agreed to dig its well in two stages. At the end of the first stage, before any fracking takes place, the company promises to take samples from the shale to determine whether the well could be commercially viable. If it’s not, the company promises to plug it and abandon it.
Helis also has promised to work with the parish to ensure that water and air quality is tested before, during and after the project and to avoid congesting local roads at peak traffic times.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.