Feds: Drilling for oil in La. wetlands may be a dumb idea


It looks like public officials are finally wising up when it comes to the ill-advised plan to bring fracking to the environmentally sensitive lands of South Louisiana. As I’ve noted in this space previously, a locally based company called Helis Oil and Gas wants to launch the region’s first hydraulic fracturing site in St. Tammany Parish, just north of Lake Pontchartrain. Residents are up in arms over the plan, and they should be. The area where Helis wants to drill lies under the aquifer the supplies water to a large swath of the state, including the Baton Rouge area.

Frankly, I don’t think Helis expected such a hard time. Traditionally, oil and gas projects haven’t drawn much opposition in a region which sees the industry as a major source of jobs. Most of the politicians were certainly on board…at first. But the public in Louisiana has changed since the twin tragedies of Katrina and the BP oil spill of 2010. No longer are citizens so trusting of authority that they’ll simply write a blank check to corporations when the purity of our water and air are involved. As news of the fracking proposal spread, the public pressure ratcheted up — and regulators could no longer ignore the situation.

This week, an assortment of agencies threw some much needed cold water on the proposal: 

Now, the Army Corps of Engineers is spelling out concerns from state and federal agencies in response to a permit application for a drilling well pad along Hwy. 1088.

The Environmental Protection Agency, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and Army Corps of Engineers expressed concerns about the proposed site and its potential impact on the wetlands in a letter to Helis Oil and Gas.

“Their concerns have to be addressed before we move forward with a permit. We look to them for their expertise,” said Ricky Boyett, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman.

In the letter, the EPA says the project doesn’t comply with federal guidelines because Helis wants to build on wetlands, and there’s been no indication the company has taken steps to avoid or minimize impacts or considered alternative sites that don’t include wetlands. It recommends that the Army Corps of Engineers not issue a permit until Helis can say why the project needs to be located within a wetland area.

In fact, the area where Helis is so eager to commence fracking is 91 percent wetlands, according to the analysis by the Corps. Given how much of our state’s precious marshlands have been gobbled up by oil and gas operations, that fact alone makes it a terrible idea. Now, officials with the corporation are telling the local media that this is merely a small blip in the road to approval, but actions by Helis at another Louisiana site raise questions about the company’s emphasis on environmental protection.

Last year, according to this consent agreement, Helis agreed to pay the feds a $12,100 civil penalty in connection with its oil spill emergency response plan at its site at Willow Cove in St. Martin Parish. Among the issues that led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pursue the case against Hellis were failures in corrosion protection for piping as well as failure to properly test or inspect key anti-pollution devices or underwater pipe. The issues raised by the EPA with Hellis at Willow Cove are one more reason why the firm’s St. Tammany plan should undergo a most aggressive review.

And so far, the feds are right to put a stop sign on this new project, perhaps permanently. Nationwide, with the current fracking boom, we’ve seen the law of unintended consequences again and again and again — earthquakes, leaking methane, radioactive waste disposal, and more. I — along with many others — remain alarmed at the idea of bringing what remains an unproven new technology to the incredibly sensitive marshes of South Louisiana. Frankly, we’re still trying to get the oil companies to fix a century of wetlands damage from the old methods. What Helis seeks in St. Tammany is not solving our problems…it will add new ones.

Read more about the new Army Corps of Engineers concerns about the Helis Oil and Gas site in St. Tammany Parish: http://www.theadvertiser.com/story/news/local/louisiana/2014/07/22/agencies-concerned-fracking-site-impact-wetlands/13004995/

Read the EPA’s 2013 consent agreement with Helis Oil and Gas over its Willow Cove facility: http://yosemite.epa.gov/OA/RHC/EPAAdmin.nsf/Filings/1F2518C745AC347385257BAD001BCADC/$File/helis.pdf

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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