State approves controversial drilling permit in St. Tammany _lowres

Drilling Permit

Helis Oil & Gas Co. scored a win Friday in the battle over fracking in St. Tammany Parish when the state Office of Conservation granted the company a permit to drill a 13,000-foot vertical well on a 960-acre tract of land south of Lakeshore High School.

The approval was granted with a list of conditions, some touching on hydraulic fracturing even though this permit is for a vertical well only and does not allow for fracking from a horizontal shaft.

For example, the permit says, any water used for fracking must come from privately owned ponds that are not fed by groundwater, and those sources must be approved by the state agency. Helis also must disclose all chemicals that would be used in fracking, and it is required to monitor the groundwater, air, storm water and noise levels around the site, with an extensive set of requirements for how that must be done and the information made public.

Helis will be required to use what’s called a closed-loop solids control system and cannot have pits. Waste mud and rock cuttings must be removed as they are drilled, and cement casings will be required from 12,000 feet underground to the surface.

Patrick Courreges, a spokesman for the Office of Conservation, said it’s unusual to have so many conditions attached to a permit, but the decision to conduct a public hearing on the request — also rare — enabled the agency to attach those requirements. Helis must meet them in order to be in compliance with its permit, he said, and the conditions are a direct response to concerns raised by residents at the hearing.

Helis plans to drill the vertical well to get samples that will determine whether the site is promising enough to use hydraulic fracturing to try to extract oil from the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale. Some of the conditions placed on the permit deal with fracking because the state agency recognizes that is Helis’ goal.

Helis could not be reached for comment Friday.

Fracking, which involves injecting water, sand and other chemicals at high pressure into a horizontal shaft to create tiny fissures in rocks through which oil or gas can be pulled to the surface, has been highly controversial in St. Tammany.

The Office of Conservation’s decision, made late Friday, was widely anticipated by opponents who worry that fracking is environmentally risky and could harm the Southern Hills aquifer, which provides St. Tammany’s drinking water.

Those were among the concerns raised at the public hearing held in November at Lakeshore High School. The agency announced at that time that a decision would be made within 30 days; that self-imposed deadline fell on Friday.

Getting the permit doesn’t mean that drilling is imminent. Helis still has a number of regulatory hurdles to clear, including the need for a wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Since the permit issued by the state is for the vertical well only, the company would need to seek further permission to drill a horizontal well. The wetlands permit the company is now seeking also applies only to the vertical well.

Rick Franzo, president of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which opposes the project, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the decision. He described the Office of Conservation as a “rubber stamp agency” and said his group never thought the permit would be denied.

“If there is a victory, it’s that for the first time, we’re seeing really good stipulations put in place,” he said.

Ultimately, he said, opponents are looking to the wetlands permit process and litigation to put a halt to Helis’ plans.

St. Tammany Parish filed suit against the state Department of Natural Resources in June, arguing that parish zoning rules prohibit drilling of a well at the site. In October, state Judge William Morvant in Baton Rouge refused to dismiss the suit. The state agency had said it should be dismissed because the state, not the parish, has ultimate authority over drilling. Morvant ruled that the case had enough merit to be heard.

Earlier this month, the town of Abita Springs filed a similar suit in 22nd Judicial District Court. And this week, Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany filed a motion to join the parish’s lawsuit.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.