The latest points in legal skirmishes over a proposed oil and gas fracking well in St. Tammany Parish have been scored by the drillers, after a state judge dismissed a suit filed against Helis Oil & Gas Co. and the state by Abita Springs.
The four-page ruling was issued Wednesday by 22nd Judicial District Judge William Knight, who presided over a March 24 hearing on several motions filed by the state and Helis. Those motions said, essentially, that a St. Tammany Parish court was the wrong place to file the suit and that Abita Springs had no grounds on which to sue. That objection was based on the fact that much of the argument centered on parish zoning laws and whether Abita Springs was attempting to enforce them outside of its boundaries.
Lisa Jordan, a Tulane Law School attorney who represents Abita Springs, argued that the suit was not an attempt to enforce zoning laws but rather was asking the court whether Abita Springs could rely on the parish’s zoning to prevent the well from being drilled.
Knight sided with Helis.
“This court is presented with the narrow issue of whether or not Abita Springs has the legal right to enforce the Unified Development Code which was adopted by St. Tammany Parish,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “The question before this court is not whether fracking is or is not a good process.”
Knight praised Jordan’s “artful pleadings” in the case but ruled that the town was attempting to “circumvent the enabling statute.”
The town does “not have the legal right to do so under the statute applicable here,” he ruled.
Knight also dismissed any claim against the state commissioner of conservation, but Jordan herself had offered to dismiss that from the case.
The dismissal means the legal fight over Helis’ drilling plans will shift to Baton Rouge, where a hearing is scheduled Monday morning before 19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant. That suit pits St. Tammany Parish government against Helis and the Office of Conservation, which issued Helis a drilling permit, but Abita Springs has a similar suit in the same district, and Jordan filed a motion Friday to consolidate the suits.
The activist group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany has also intervened in the parish’s suit and has asked the court to consolidate another suit it filed with the parish suit.
In addition to the state litigation, Abita Springs filed suit in February in federal court against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, arguing that the Corps illegally denied the town’s request for a public hearing on Helis’ application for a permit to drill in wetlands. That application is still under review. The U.S. Department of Justice has asked for a 30-day extension to the normal 60-day period in which to file a response. Jordan said Abita Springs agreed to the extension.
The controversy exploded last year after Helis revealed its plans to drill a well on a 960-acre tract just east of La. 1088 northeast of Mandeville. The company plans first to drill a vertical well and collect samples to see if the rock formations 13,000 feet down could be a viable commercial producer of oil. If the samples are promising, the company wants to drill a mile-long horizontal shaft and then use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract oil and natural gas from the rocks. When a well is fracked, water, sand and chemicals are injected into the ground at high pressure to create fissures in rock through which oil and liquid gas can be extracted.
The process is controversial around the nation, and opponents have blamed it for a rash of health and environmental problems. In St. Tammany, opposition has focused on the potential threat a well failure could pose to the parish’s drinking water supply in the Southern Hills Aquifer.
Proponents, on the other hand, point out that there are fracking wells already drilled through the Southern Hills Aquifer in Washington and Tangipahoa parishes as well as in Mississippi.
Jordan said she may appeal Knight’s ruling.
Helis spokesman Greg Beuerman said the company was pleased with the ruling and is looking forward to the Monday hearing in Baton Rouge and moving “this important energy project one step closer to becoming a reality.”
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.