The state Office of Conservation has approved a drilling permit for Helis Oil & Gas Co.'s proposed drilling and fracking operation near Mandeville, moving the controversial project a step closer to reality. The approval was announced late Friday (Dec. 19) on the state Department of Natural Resources website.
The project still needs a wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and a water quality certification from the state Department of Environmental Quality before any work can begin.
"The permit is approved. But there are conditions," DNR spokesman Patrick Courreges said Friday evening.
The conditions include various points that were made at a public hearing DNR hosted Nov. 12 at Lakeshore High School north of Mandeville, including water and air testing, Courreges said. The drilling operation also must be a "closed-loop" system, meaning drilling mud and produced water from the well cannot be dumped into a pit, but must be put directly into tanks when brought to the surface, he said.
"It can never leave containment," Courreges said.
The questions about the air and water testing and fluid containment were brought up by attorneys representing the town of Abita Springs and the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, who oppose the project.
"We put that as conditions on the permit," Courreges said. "We made it legally binding."
Helis spokesman Greg Beuerman said Friday evening the company was happy with the approval but had not yet fully examined the Office of Conservation's notice.
"Certainly, based on what we know right now, we are pleased," he said. "We are not terribly surprised that the application has been granted. We've been operating on that assumption all along.
"It's an important step in the process. We're gratified that it's occurred now, and we look forward to the process of moving ahead with this project."
Rick Franzo, president of the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, also said he was not surprised by DNR's approval of the permit.
"It's nothing we didn't expect," he said. "We expected a rubber stamp approval from DNR. We believe the stumbling block for the (Helis) project will be with the Army Corps."
According to the permit, there will be no pits or earthen pits, either lined or unlined, at the site, which is just north of Interstate 12 about a mile east of Louisiana 1088. Steel tanks will be used in the closed-loop system.
Helis must restrict its acquisition of water for fracking purposes to surface water from private ponds that are not replenished by groundwater wells, the permit says. Acquisition of the water cannot begin until the sources are approved by the Office of Conservation.
The company must provide full disclosure of the chemicals it uses to frack the well.
Helis must monitor groundwater, air, storm water and noise and make any reports associated with the monitoring available to the Office of Conservation and the public.
And before drilling, Helis must provide a work plan that is satisfactory to the Office of Conservation for each of the monitoring programs, the permit says.
The drilling permit gives Helis approval to drill an exploratory vertical well 13,374 feet deep. The company has said it would then take several months to study data from the well.
If the information is promising, the company said it would then seek to drill horizontally and use the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, method to crack the shale and release oil so it can be extracted. However, Helis would need to amend its drilling permit and obtain state approval to begin that portion of the operation.
Last month's public hearing on Helis' permit application drew a large crowd of citizens, most of whom opposed the project. The hearing, which gave everyone an opportunity to comment, lasted nearly eight hours, going well past midnight.
Testimony was taken from consultants for Helis, and attorneys for the town of Abita Springs and Concerned Citizens cross-examined the consultants and called one witness of their own.
Many citizens and some parish officials say the public health and pollution risks associated with fracking are not worth whatever benefits may be derived. They cite problems elsewhere in the country and say the parish should not gamble with its soil, water, air and quality of life.
Helis says the drilling can be done safely and that it would safeguard the parish's environment. While opponents have been the most outspoken, many citizens and a number of business groups support Helis' plans.
St. Tammany Parish and Abita Springs have filed lawsuits in an effort to block the project. The lawsuits are pending.