Tammany crowd cheers anti-fracking moves, calls for more

In what has become a regular scene in St. Tammany Parish in recent weeks, anti-fracking activists packed a public meeting Thursday night and urged public officials to do anything they can to stop a New Orleans-based company from drilling an oil well in a wooded area north of Interstate 12 and east of La. 1088.

So many attended the St. Tammany Parish Council meeting that some had to watch in the lobby or under the building’s portico on closed-circuit TV.

While many cheered the council’s unanimous passage of a series of resolutions to establish baseline water testing and to authorize attorneys to go to court to try to prevent the state’s Department of Natural Resources from issuing a drilling permit to Helis Oil & Gas, for some of the onlookers, the actions didn’t go far enough.

For those activists, the only acceptable solution is a parish-level ban on all drilling or at least on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

“A ban would send a strong message to Helis and other oil companies,” said Stephanie Houston Grey, one of the leading voices in the parish’s anti-fracking movement. “That’s the most serious signal we can send.”

Rick Franzo, of the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany group, said his organization would not be satisfied until the practice is outlawed in St. Tammany.

“I believe this is an issue that we are all on the same ground,” Franzo said, promising to fight any planned wells all the way to the nation’s highest court. He said CCST’s attorneys would work with the parish on enacting such a ban.

Going through the courts may be the only recourse left to parish officials who, after initially saying they believed the parish was largely powerless to stop Helis from getting its permit, are now actively working to thwart the company’s plans. Last month, Parish President Pat Brister and 13 of the 14 council members — one was out of town — signed a letter to state Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh urging him to reject the permit application because the parish’s zoning for the site of the proposed well does not allow drilling.

Helis has yet to apply for a drilling permit. The company is set to go before Welsh on June 17 for what is called a “unitization hearing,” to establish the boundaries of the drilling “unit” or plot of ground from which the company hopes to extract oil. If Welsh approves the boundaries of the 960-acre tract that Helis has in mind, he can issue a unit order. Once that order is issued, the company can apply for a drilling permit.

An application for a separate permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also is under review. The public comment period for that application closes June 16. The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation has urged the Corps to reject or at least suspend the application to allow time for more study of the well’s potential impacts.

Councilman Marty Gould’s resolution instructing attorneys from the Blue Williams law firm to seek an injunction against a DNR permit cites a Louisiana legislative auditor’s report issued May 28 that accused the Department of Natural Resources of negligence in inspecting oil wells and keeping operators in compliance. The agency also has a backlog of orphaned, or abandoned, wells that have yet to be plugged and whose owners cannot be located.

Gould said the idea of a ban should be investigated but, meanwhile, the resolutions under consideration should be passed.

“My heart is into this fight,” he said to a standing ovation.

One party not represented at the meeting was Helis. A spokeswoman said Wednesday that company officials would continue to engage in “respectful” dialogue with those who have concerns, but she demurred when asked about attending public meetings, saying the tone at the meetings has not been conducive to constructive discourse.

Last week, Helis President David Kerstein sent a letter to some concerned officials, assuring them the company plans to exceed state regulations on well safety and to have as little impact on the parish as possible. He said the company would behave as “guests” in St. Tammany.

Helis already has made some concessions to what was, for it, a surprisingly strong outcry against its project. The company first agreed to delay the unitization hearing by one month from its original May 13 date. The company also said it would drill the well in phases, first drilling a vertical well and testing samples before deciding if the well would be commercially viable. If the samples were positive, the company then would drill the horizontal portion of the well.

A solution of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure then would be pumped into the horizontal portion of the well, where it would create cracks in rock formations more than 2 miles deep. Oil and gas can be pumped to the surface through the cracks.

The process, known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made previously inaccessible oil and gas reserves available and has resulted in a drilling boom around the United States. It has been controversial, though, with some people accusing fracking wells of causing a litany of environmental and health problems. Some communities have attempted to ban or halt it, with varying degrees of success.

The Concerned Citizens group has started collecting signatures on a petition to force the council to enact a ban or put it before the parish’s voters.

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