Energy company with fracking plans eyes 60,000 acres in St. Tammany Parish

Helis Energy’s plans to drill a “fracking” oil well on a 960-acre tract near La. 1088 in St. Tammany Parish could be just the start: Helis has obtained either leases or options to lease as much as 60,000 total acres in the parish, according to a recent letter sent to parish and school system officials by David Kerstein, the company’s president.

Helis has applied for a permit to drill just one well on the land north of Interstate 12, and the letter is the first indication that the company could have much bigger plans.

The letter does not detail plans for the 60,000 acres, saying only that the leases and options have been obtained from the Poitevent family, prominent landowners in St. Tammany, and Abita Timber.

First, the company needs to dig a test well to see whether the La. 1088 location is a viable production site.

Kerstein took pains to assure parish officials that the test well, and any subsequent production well, would offer minimal disruption to nearby Lakeshore High School and would have little effect on St. Tammany’s water supply, traffic or environment.

The letter, dated April 15, was addressed to Joseph Alphonse, an associate attorney for the parish government, and Jeffrey Schoen, an attorney for the school system, and was copied to Parish President Pat Brister, Economic Development Director Don Shea and state Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville.

Helis Energy’s plans have attracted plenty of attention from residents, much of it negative. Many residents who packed a Mandeville public meeting hosted by Burns on April 16 were vocal in their opposition to fracking in their vicinity.

Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons, who also has raised concerns, will hold a public meeting on the issue at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Abita Springs Town Hall.

Earlier that day, retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel HonorĂ©, who has turned into an environmental activist in recent years, will take his “GreenArmy bus tour” to Abita Springs, said Rick Franzo, of the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany organization.

The state Department of Natural Resources has turned down a request by Burns to delay a planned May 13 unitization hearing. Such a hearing sets the boundaries for the proposed drilling site, identifies the landowners who will profit from any oil or gas extracted and is normally a precursor to a state permit to drill.

Burns has sponsored a bill in the Legislature that would extend the time that these permits are reviewed.

Parish Councilman Jake Groby has asked both the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny Helis a permit. Groby also plans to ask the council to consider hiring an attorney with oil and gas experience to protect the parish’s interests.

Helis Energy plans to extract oil from the ground using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — a process by which water, sand and chemicals are injected into the ground to fracture rock so that oil or gas can be pumped out. Fracking has been controversial as it has been introduced in other parts of the country. The process requires significant quantities of water, and once the water is used, it must be treated.

Kerstein’s letter promises that Helis will use available surface water or water from “outside commercial sources” for the initial well. He did not specify what outside sources the company might use.

Kerstein’s letter said the well should have no effect on the Southern Hills aquifer — the sole source of drinking water in the parish and a major source of angst for those worried about the drilling.

“Thousands of wells in Louisiana, including wells in St. Tammany Parish, have safely drilled through shallow freshwater aquifers,” Kerstein said.

Water-based drilling fluids will be used to a depth of 3,600 feet, through the aquifer, and then the well will be encased in three layers of protective material, he said.

The actual hydraulic fracturing will take place about 12,000 feet underground, Kerstein said, adding that the vertical distance between the fracking and the aquifer will protect the aquifer.

Kerstein also tried to allay fears that the well will negatively affect Lakeshore High School, which is near the well site. He said all wells drilled and surface equipment for the wells will lie on the “surface use pad,” an approximately 10-acre tract that is more than a mile from the school. Helis anticipates no “material adverse sight or sound impact, or safety or health hazards to the high school,” according to the letter.

In addition, the horizontal part of the well — more than 12,000 feet underground — will remain at least 2,030 feet from the high school, Kerstein said.

To date, Helis has spent about $1.1 million acquiring the rights to the land and preparing for the well, Kerstein said. The company expects to spend about $16 million sinking the well into the ground.

The test well to determine if the area is worth using the fracking procedure won’t get going until at least July, according to the letter. It will last about 60 days, and then evaluation of the data will take another three or four months before Helis officials decide whether a production well is viable.

“If the well does not appear to be commercially productive, we will properly plug and abandon it,” Kerstein wrote.

Before any operations take place, the company plans to develop a site-specific emergency response and evacuation plan, which will be provided to the school system and the parish government.

In addition, the letter says, officials from Helis are willing to meet with parish and school representatives and to attend a public town hall meeting about the drilling proposal.

Kerstein said the company has “drilled and hydraulically fractured approximately 60 horizontal wells at depth equivalent to the proposed operation.”