Louisiana Supreme Court refuses to hear St. Tammany fracking appeal, likely ending 2-year challenge vs. Helis _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by VERONICA DOMINACH -- Opponents of Helis Oil plans to drill a fracking well in St. Tammany Parish were dealt a second blow this week as a state district judge ruled that parish authorities cannot interfere with the oil company permit.

The Louisiana Supreme Court has refused to consider an appeal by St. Tammany Parish and a citizens group challenging a state decision to award a permit to a company that wants to drill an oil well near Lakeshore High School.

The chance the well could be subject to fracking has aroused intense controversy in St. Tammany.

By a 4-3 vote, the court refused to hear the appeal, allowing a decision by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal to stand. Justices Greg Guidry, Jeannette Theriot Knoll and Marcus Clark dissented.

The appeals panel ruled earlier this year that the parish’s zoning ordinance, which bans industrial activity at the site, had to be considered, but not followed, by the state when considering the permit application.

The decision effectively ends a nearly two-year legal challenge against Helis Oil & Gas Co.’s plans to drill a well in a wooded tract northeast of Mandeville.

The case pitted the parish against the state’s commissioner of conservation, who issued a permit to Helis to drill an exploratory well at the site.

The group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which has strongly opposed the well, joined the suit on the side of the parish. Helis also joined on the side of the Office of Conservation.

Helis, through a spokesman, praised the decision.

“Helis is pleased that these legal proceedings have come to a logical and long-expected conclusion and look forward to being responsible corporate neighbors and contributors to the parish’s quality of life,” spokesman Greg Beuerman said.

On the other side, Concerned Citizens lambasted the decision, saying it “sweeps aside long-standing constitutional principles for citizens and instead gives new, special privilege to certain companies.”

The group said it planned to ask the court to reconsider its decision.

Two of the dissenting justices, Knoll and Guidry, offered reasons for their votes.

Knoll, in a two-page statement, said the appeals court properly identified the commissioner’s right to issue a permit as a specific police power afforded him under the state constitution, but that zoning regulations are also an exercise of police power.

“I find the Court of Appeal failed to acknowledge and analyze the tension between these two police powers,” Knoll wrote.

Guidry was more direct, saying zoning ordinances “are fundamental to our system of self-governance and of great importance to the citizenry” and that the case warranted a full review by the high court.

Helis plans to start moving a drilling rig onto the site off La. 1088 within the week, and drilling could begin by the end of this month.

Company officials have said drilling the 13,000-foot-deep vertical well should take about 30 days, and they hope to be finished by the time school starts in August.

Once that well is drilled, the company plans to collect samples and also conduct tests on a 270-foot-thick layer of rock more than 12,000 feet down to see if the formation, part of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, could be an economically viable source of oil, Helis official Mike Barham said.

Analysis of the samples and test results is expected to take several months.

If the results are positive — a 50-50 proposition, Barham said — Helis would move to Phase 2 of the project, which would involve hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Before that could take place, the company would have to reapply to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a new wetlands permit for a larger drill pad. It also would have to get a new permit from the Office of Conservation.

Barham said he would not be surprised if it is 2017 before any fracking could occur.

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.