The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is soliciting public comments on a proposal by Helis Oil & Gas Co. to construct a 3.2-acre drill pad about a mile from Lakeshore High School in St. Tammany Parish.
Official notice of Helis’ application was posted Monday, and the public comment period will close Nov. 13, one day after Louisiana Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh holds a public hearing on the company’s request for a state drilling permit.
Because about 3.1 acres of wetlands will be impacted by the construction of the drilling pad and an adjacent guard shack, Helis must get a permit from the Corps of Engineers before it can begin construction.
The drill pad will allow Helis to sink a nearly 13,000-foot-deep vertical well, from which samples will be collected and tested.
It is Helis’ second application for a wetlands permit. The Corps asked the company to revise the first one — which asked for permission to build a 10-acre drilling pad — after consulting geologists raised questions about whether the site could be a commercially viable oil producer.
The larger drilling pad would have allowed Helis not only to drill a vertical well for testing but also to bore a mile-long horizontal shaft and hydraulically fracture, or frack, the shaft to extract oil.
In rejecting the first application, Corps engineers said Helis’ well was essentially “speculative” and therefore there was no need at this time to build the larger drilling pad. Helis then submitted an application for the smaller pad.
Helis officials had already promised parish leaders that they would suspend drilling after the vertical shaft is sunk in order to test samples, so the revised wetlands application covers just the first stage of the proposed construction.
Helis’ plans drew quick and vociferous opposition from the time they became public in April. Opponents have focused on concerns about fracking, a process by which water, sand and other chemicals are injected into the earth at high pressure to crack shale rock more than 2 miles deep. Oil and natural gas then can flow through those cracks to the well and then to the surface, where they are collected.
While the process has boosted the domestic production of oil and natural gas, it has been blamed by some critics for a variety of health and environmental problems in areas where it has been deployed.
In St. Tammany, much of the opposition has focused on potential contamination of the parish’s drinking water, which comes from the Southern Hills Aquifer deep underground.
Industry representatives have insisted that the process is safe and that Helis will install extra layers of casing on the Tammany well to further insulate the aquifer from contamination.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.