COVINGTON – Louisiana is, by and large, a state that welcomes new oil and gas projects. This comes as no surprise – the industry provides jobs for residents and a substantial tax base for the state treasury. From 20-year-old tax exemptions to the recent passage of Senate Bill 469, which blocks lawsuits against 97 oil and gas companies, the industry is secure and welcome in the state.
But after a proposition was made by Helis Oil and Gas to conduct hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in St. Tammany Parish, one of the state’s most conservative and wealthiest parishes, residents are putting up strong opposition.
“It’s somewhat unusual,” says Lisa Jordan, executive director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. “It’s pretty rare to have a lawsuit about oil and gas drilling in general. There aren’t that many cases in Louisiana where people are just challenging the entire concept.”
The lawsuit, filed by St. Tammany Parish on June 16, seeks a declaratory judgment that the state should not grant Helis a permit to drill. The suit cites parish zoning laws, doubts regarding the government's ability to provide adequate environmental regulations, and the parish’s authority to provide for the welfare of its constituents.
So what sets this proposed drilling project apart from others that have gone unopposed in Louisiana?
To gain access to natural gas located in shale deep below the earth's surface, oil companies inject highly pressurized fracking fluid – a combination of water and some combination of various chemicals – to create cracks in the rock where natural gas gathers and is extracted.
The fight began in March of 2014 after Helis submitted its plan to drill a fracking well on the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, located North of I-12 and a mile east of LA 1088 in St. Tammany Parish. In order to reach the shale over 13,000 feet below ground, the drill would inevitably go through the Southern Hills Aquifer. The aquifer is the source of 90 percent of St. Tammany Parish’s water.
In less than a month’s time, the Parish held multiple, widely-attended meetings to determine how to prevent the drilling. On May 2, the Parish council passed a resolution to file a lawsuit against Helis, and the suit was filed on June 16, in the 19th Judicial District Court. The next day, June 17, opponents of the well also appeared before the Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Conservation.
This is not the first time opponents of the well have taken the matter to court. The activist group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany Parish previously filed two lawsuits, one in federal court and one in the 19th Judicial Court seeking documents that Helis submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its permit application.
While neither of these suits were taken to trial, the group’s legal counsel, Gail Blazek, says, “we were successful in both.”
Fracking is not new to Louisiana. In fact, many parishes welcome the oil and gas industry’s wells as providing a much-needed economic boost to their communities. Residents of nearby Tangipahoa Parish are reportedly thrilled with the drilling – so why is St. Tammany opposed?
To the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany’s president, Rick Franzo, the parish’s stark opposition is “all about the water.”
“Fracking, in other parts of the country, can be done safely. But we don’t get our water from the Mississippi River, or the Red River. We have been designated as a sole-source aquifer by the EPA, which means we get more than 90 percent of our water from the aquifer under the ground,” Franzo said.
According to Blazek, wells such as the one proposed by Helis have “a known failure rate of 5-10 percent, depending on the source you find. We feel that it is unacceptable for a drilling company to contaminate our only source of drinking water.”
The known failure rate, combined with the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s finding that the Office of Conservation fails to inspect a large portion of the state’s wells, are the parish’s driving factors in opposition to fracking.
However, Helis representative Greg Beuerman believes that St. Tammany’s opposition is driven by reasons that “may not have anything to do with gas or oil drilling.”
While acknowledging that the questions being raised “are very real,” Beuerman wants people to “take a step back and look at what has been going on in the parish over the last two, three, or four years. The parish is struggling with growing pains.”
According to the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation, the parish’s population will double by the year 2030. Beuerman blames the rapid growth for the heightened concerns within the parish about “development, traffic, congestion, and quality of life.” He points to other proposed commercial developments that faced opposition within the parish, such as Rouse’s and Walmart, and says that the “whole concern with development predates Helis even coming into the parish.”
In addition to an unprecedented growth in population, Beuerman cites the growing “undercurrent of political anxiety” in St. Tammany right now.
“Their coroner was thrown out in a huge financial scandal, their district attorney is under significant political pressure – he isn’t even running again. Opposition to our project isn’t just about our project, and it isn’t really rooted in concerns that there might be environmental impacts from our project,” Beuerman said.
Beuerman finds St. Tammany’s outspoken water-quality concerns to be a “red-herring.”
“Louisiana has some of the toughest water quality regulations in America, and because of this, Louisiana has some of the highest quality water in the nation. If oil wells caused poor water quality, given the number of wells in Louisiana, you would think this wouldn’t be the case. But it is,” he said.
Helis has offered, at its own expense, to pre-train the parish’s first responders to deal with the specific type of chemicals used in the well, in the chance that the well does fail. According to Beuerman, “no other company has done this.” Additionally, Helis has created “a comprehensive emergency response plan specific for this well, tailored to its environment.”
Buermann emphasizes that Helis appreciates the Corps of Engineers' request for it to revise its drilling permit application, which was denied on Aug, 5.
“Helis has a very precise and meticulous way of operation, and so we understand why [the Corps] wants to get this right,” Beuerman said.
Helis calls the project “an important part of developing new energy assets for the state of Louisiana, and for consumers in general.” To the company, the lengthy process and potential risks are well worth the reward that it hopes will follow.
Opponents within St. Tammany Parish, however, do not find the potential assets to be worth the risk.
Speaking on behalf of her client, the Town of Abita Springs, Jordan says that “the water resource is just more valuable than the money that comes out of the well, even if that money might go to the state budget. You just can’t put a price on it. There is certainly, absolutely no guarantee that the aquifer won’t be contaminated. And once that happens, you can’t un-ring the bell.”
According to Jordan, the clean water of Abita Springs represents the town’s “identity.”
“Abita Springs water, Abita Springs beer. It makes up its economy, its culture, and is the reason why people moved here. This is what is important to these people,” she said.
Because of her client’s deep-rooted interest in clean water, they primarily hope that the parish’s suit against the Commissioner of Conservation results in the court ruling that St. Tammany Parish can legally enact a ban on fracking within the parish. Ultimately, the parish wants the court to rule that it, not the state, has the right to decide where oil companies can drill – if at all.
But to Helis, the suit and the strong opposition that it reflects “absolutely” does not affect the company’s decision to frack the shale. Speaking on behalf of the company, Beuerman seems confident that the company will eventually drill.
“Our attorneys are patient – they understand that this is a marathon, not a sprint. But we earnestly and honestly believe that the courts will reject the parish’s plea. Consistently, courts rule that indeed state law trumps local ordinances. It would be a complete reversal of every other judgment that has ever been made,” he said.
Jordan, however, says that cases involving zoning, as the present lawsuit does, “really run the gambit” and are “very fact-specific.” Admitting that “there have been a number where the court has ruled against the parish,” Jordan does refer to the “few where the court has ruled in favor.”
Regardless of the success of the suit, the St. Tammany certainly does not plan to back off in its fight against Helis.
Opponents of the well anticipate further suits, as Franzo reiterates: “whether it is this suit that is successful, or whether we bring another suit... we will not force the people of St. Tammany Parish to have an ax over their heads that one day, when they wake up, they will turn on the tap and have contaminated water come out.”
If the fracking project were to contaminate the water supply, Helis will certainly face intense legal backlash not unlike a suit filed in Texas earlier in 2014. After suing Aruba Petroleum in 2011 for contaminated air and drinking water, a single Texas family was awarded almost $3 million for loss in property value, pain and suffering and mental anguish. Over three-dozen other lawsuits, including ten class actions, have been filed across America.
However, Buerrman maintains that community members against the well are not entirely driven by concerns about water.
“There are as many people who oppose our project because they fear it will be successful as those who fear it will fail. It all goes back to St. Tammany’s issue of leaving things the way they are,” he said.
A conference for the lawsuit is set for Sept. 1, and the court date is set for Oct. 27.