After more than two years of legal and political wrangling, Helis Oil & Gas Co. is set to begin drilling its St. Tammany Parish oil well by the end of this month, officials said Monday.
The company plans to begin moving a 100-foot-tall drilling rig onto the site within a week in preparation for drilling operations to start, said Mike Barham, the Helis manager overseeing the project.
Once the rig is in place, the drilling is expected to last about 30 days, hopefully wrapping up before school begins in early August, Barham said.
This first phase of the project will involve drilling a 13,000-foot-deep vertical well and will not include any hydraulic fracturing, Barham said.
The company plans to collect samples and also conduct tests on a 270-foot-thick layer of rock more than 12,000 feet deep to see if the formation, part of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, could be an economically viable source of oil, 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, Helis 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 permission from the state’s Office of Conservation.
Barham said he would not be surprised if it is 2017 before any fracking could occur.
The company’s announcement comes as the Louisiana Supreme Court considers whether to hear an appeal from St. Tammany Parish and the organization Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which have argued in court that the parish’s zoning ordinances preclude industrial activity like drilling for oil at the Helis site.
The site sits at the southern end of a wooded 960-acre tract just over a mile from Lakeshore High School. The area is zoned residential.
A district judge ruled against the parish last year, and that ruling was upheld earlier this year by a state appeals court panel. The Supreme Court has not said whether it will take up the case.
Since Helis announced its plans to drill for oil at the site in early 2014, parish activists have vigorously fought the plan, arguing — like anti-fracking activists around the country — that fracking is dangerous to the environment and residents.
When a well is fracked, water, sand and chemicals are injected deep underground at high pressure, creating fissures in the rock through which oil and natural gas can be extracted. Opponents of the process have blamed it for problems such as contaminated drinking water and respiratory problems.
Proponents say the method has helped reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil and is a boon to the local economy.
Recently, the low price of crude oil has driven many companies to reduce or eliminate fracking operations, but Barham said that is less of a factor in this case.
“We don’t care if we make money on the first well,” he said. Rather, the company is curious to see whether this part of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale could be a viable producer. “The driver is do we have potential,” he said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.