Standing under a drilling apparatus reaching nearly 200 feet into the air, Helis Oil & Gas Co. project manager Mike Barham said Monday the company could start drilling its controversial St. Tammany Parish well as early as Wednesday.
The drilling rig has been assembled, thousands of feet of pipe are stacked nearby and three 600-horsepower diesel engines hummed as Barham led a group of visitors on a tour of the site.
When the bit finally digs into the ground, it will be the culmination of more than two years of on-site work, legal wrangling and public debate in St. Tammany, normally an oil industry-friendly parish.
The Helis project — which could eventually make use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — has been controversial from the start, drawing a continuing challenge from opponents who packed public meetings, fought permits and caused the Parish Council to spend nearly $200,000 suing the state.
That fight isn’t over. In a last-gasp move, the council and the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany have asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider its refusal to hear their appeal of a lower court ruling allowing the project to proceed.
St. Tammany Parish will take its fight against a planned fracking well near Mandeville to th…
For now, however, the work on the 3-acre pad is going forward, and Barham was eager to show off not just the drilling rig but also some of the environmental safety measures the company has put into place: a dozen wells that will be used to test water quality, a stormwater collection and filtration system, and an air-monitoring station.
He also showed an array of trailers housing offices, work stations and space for crews to eat and sleep when they aren’t working 12-hour shifts on the rig.
But the tour was dominated by the rig itself and the surrounding tanks, pumps and engines that will be used to dig a 2-mile-deep hole in the earth.
Drilling the vertical well and then dismantling the drilling rig should take about 30 days. It then will take several months for the company to analyze the test results before it decides if it wants to proceed to Phase 2, which would mean using horizontal drilling and fracking to extract oil from the well.
The use of fracking has helped the U.S. reduce its dependence on foreign sources of oil, but it has been blamed for a litany of environmental and health problems.
Recently, the drop in the price of oil has forced many fracking companies out of the industry, but Helis has insisted that the price of oil will have no impact on its plans.
A state appeals court has dealt another blow to fracking opponents in St. Tammany Parish.
Meanwhile, St. Tammany Parish and the Concerned Citizens group are hoping the state Supreme Court will reconsider hearing their appeal of a 1st Circuit Court of Appeal decision from earlier this year.
The parish and Concerned Citizens had sued the state and Helis, arguing that the parish’s zoning laws prohibit heavy industrial activity, such as oil drilling, at the site. A state district court judge ruled against them last year, the appeals court refused to overturn that ruling and the Supreme Court refused earlier this month to hear the case.