Last week, Helis Oil & Gas Co. officials showed off the start of construction on their controversial St. Tammany Parish oil well. This week, an environmental group in St. Tammany launched a new effort to curtail the project.
The group, Preserve St. Tammany, plans to ask the Parish Council to put a referendum before voters on whether to require what they are calling an industrial impact bond from this and other large projects.
It would mean any company that wants to put a heavy industrial development in the parish must pay for a bond to help defray the cost of any damages or accidents, according to Mike Stagg, a spokesman for the group.
While Preserve St. Tammany hopes the bond would apply to any industrial development, the fracking project that Helis is pursuing is clearly in the group’s cross-hairs.
The well being dug now is “Helis No. 1,” Stagg said. “We don’t want Helis No. 2, or No. 10 or 55. That’s what we are about.”
The group’s plan has several parts. Organizers want the council to put a measure on the ballot asking voters if they would be in favor of requiring industrial impact bonds. Any actual ordinance establishing the bond would then have to be hashed out, likely in 2016.
The goal of the bonds would be to stop companies from drilling fracking wells in the parish by driving up the cost of business, Stagg told several dozen people gathered at an organizing meeting in Abita Springs on Monday night.
By adopting this tack rather than seeking to ban fracking wells outright, Preserve St. Tammany hopes to make moot any challenges from state regulators over the issue of pre-emption.
In two different court battles, state judges have agreed with attorneys for the state and Helis that authority for regulating oil and gas drilling lies with the state. St. Tammany’s zoning laws, while they may be considered, can’t prevent the well from being drilled, the courts have ruled.
“Whatever we do, we don’t want to provoke a state-local fight,” Stagg said.
The group also plans a petition drive to help put pressure on the council, as well as a public education campaign. Monday night’s meeting was meant to drum up support for the campaign, which has a limited amount of time: A ballot measure would have to be submitted to the state by Aug. 11, Stagg told the crowd. If they aren’t able to get one into the Oct. 24 election, they would try to get it on the Nov. 21 ballot, he added.
A Helis spokesman said the company is aware of the effort but would not take a position on a bond ordinance.
The company hopes to begin drilling a 13,000-foot vertical well in the middle of July, company officials said last week.
Two monitoring stations near the well already are collecting data on a range of atmospheric, noise and meteorological indicators, with the aim of providing an early warning system that would catch any problems at the well. A third station will be constructed at the site of the drilling.
Helis plans first to drill the vertical well and collect samples from a 240-foot-thick layer of rock more than two miles underground. If those samples and the accompanying tests show that the site could be a viable oil producer, the company hopes to drill a mile-long horizontal shaft and use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract oil.
When a well is fracked, water, sand and other chemicals are pumped into the horizontal shaft at high pressure, creating tiny cracks through which oil or gas can be pumped out.
Fracking proponents say the method has boosted the production of domestic oil, while detractors decry it as environmentally hazardous. It has been controversial around the country, and some communities have tried to ban it, with varying degrees of success.
In normally oil industry-friendly St. Tammany, Helis’ plans have attracted fiery opposition from the moment they became known last year.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.