Big Oil digs deeper in La. — will it be any different this time?

When I started practicing environmental law out of New Orleans in the late 1980s, the Deep South was still scarred by the last big oil rush. The Arab oil embargo and spike in prices during the 1970s had sparked a big boom in the Gulf Coast oil patch, but a decade later the price had plummeted and many of the wells were sealed off.

What the oil giants left behind would keep me busy as a lawyer for years — radioactive and toxic wastes everywhere, dumped in unlined pits in rural communities, mixed with the rich Louisiana soil through the process known as “land farming,” and contaminating workers who were exposed to the poisonous material that lined the production pipes, known as “scale.” Big Oil treated the backwoods of the Deep South like a giant Port-o-Potty — and when most oil exploration in the region moved offshore, many neighbors weren’t sorry to see it go.

Now, the energy companies are returning to their old haunts — thanks to new technology, but especially fracking, which allows oil and gas drillers to find and extract pockets of fossil fuels that were once unattainable. Just north of Lake Ponchartrain not far from New Orleans, residents are desperately trying to fight a fracking operation amid the aquifer that supplies a large area including Baton Rouge.

Even with that hanging in the balance, efforts to frack Louisiana are still on the upswing:

Two Gulf Coast oil and gas companies with large footprints in south Louisiana are partnering in a $24 million deal to drill some of the state’s oldest oilfields. The companies plan to use new drilling technology to tap oil and gas reserves they say larger companies left behind decades ago.

Lafayette-based PetroQuest Energy Inc. said on Monday (June 30) it has agreed to pay $10 million in cash upfront and $14 million in future drilling costs to acquire half of the interests in one of Midstates Petroleum Co.’s drilling projects in central Louisiana.

The project, known as Fleetwood, spans about 30,000 acres total in an area west of Baton Rouge.

Houston-based Midstates Petroleum has been using new horizontal drilling and fracking technology to revive oil production at Louisiana fields discovered in the 1940s and 1950s. The company started researching the Fleetwood area as a potential project in 2012. Midstates has since identified 12 possible new well sites and estimates the area could hold up to 300 million barrels of recoverable oil and gas reserves.

If these projects move forward, it’s important that we proceed with extreme caution. While there are certainly some ancillary benefits to the current U.S. oil-and-gas boom — with some new jobs created and some downward pressure on prices at the pump — most of the upside is for oil company profits and for millionaire owners.

And what a potential downside! We’ve already seen in other parts of the country that the wastewater produced from drilling deep into shale rock can be highly radioactive — more so than the produced water from the conventional drilling of the 1970s and ’80s. The fracking process has also led to increased risk of earthquakes. What’s more, the regulatory climate today — especially in Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal has been little more than a tool for big energy interests — seems even more lax than it was then, if that’s possible. If Louisiana is really going to take part in the fracking boom, it needs to get it right this time around.

For more information about plans to expand unconventional gas drilling in south Louisiana, please read: http://www.nola.com/business/index.ssf/2014/06/lafayette_houston_company_stri.html

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One Response to Big Oil digs deeper in La. — will it be any different this time?

  1. KC King says:

    When looking for root causes of and appropriate remedies for “irresponsible” drilling I would recommend looking for life-critical flaws resilience systems engineering practices used in high risk on-shore and off-shore hydrocarbon extraction.

    I would suggest that the model for acceptable and best practices might be found in the (idealized) civil engineering practice of “sealing” drawings for constructing residential and commercial structures. The seal, itself, explicitly means that safety has in fact been the. “paramount” consideration in evaluating the life cycle of deliverable structures in accordance with the American Society of Civil Engineering’s (ASCE) code of ethics.

    It is clear that there is equivalent standard in the domain of petroleum engineering let alone mechanisms to institutionalize it’s disciplined practice. Until this happens all hydrocarbon extraction should considered ethically suspect.

    Remedial actions should include:

    - the American Petroeum Institute (API) and/or the the association for petroleum engineering should establish a Professional Engineering practice modeled on the ideal Civil Engineering codes and practices. These codes should provide an ethical framework that puts safety of all stakeholders before business or profitability considerations.

    Without such an ethically-based safety focus, the citizenry will, and should, withold trust from the oil and gas industry.

    If this proposal strikes anyone’s bell, I’d be delighted to explore this further.

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