Please don’t frack Louisiana


I’ve traveled a lot, for work and for pleasure, and I’ve yet to see a state as beautiful as Louisiana — or as environmentally sensitive. And yet because the state is so rich with resources — not just oil and natural gas but salt and other chemical building blocks — there is always intense pressure to exploit our ecology, often with disastrous consequences. The unchecked political power of Big Oil has allowed the industry to, literally, carve up the marshy wetlands that protect us from hurricanes and floods. The expansion of offshore drilling to deeper and deeper waters forms a direct line to the BP oil catastrophe in 2010. And the refining and chemical production plants above ground have filled the air with the toxic ingredients of what has become “Cancer Alley” along the banks of the Mississippi.

But there is one environmental scourge that South Louisiana has managed to avoid so far: Fracking. Yet with so much oil still trapped under our rich soil, it was just a matter of time before a plan for the deep drilling process came to our neck of the woods — just on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. As you might expect, the proposal is alarming from an environmental point of view:

St. Tammany Parish Councilman Jacob Groby, III says drinking water could be threatened if Helis Oil & Gas Co., LLC, based in New Orleans, is allowed to frack 960 acres of timberland near Mandeville and Abita Springs in southeast Louisiana. Helis wants to drill down 12,000 feet through the Southern Hills aquifer system, the parish’s chief water source. Last week, Parish President Pat Brister and Parish Council Chairman Reid Falconer pressured the firm to ask for a delay in the state’s May 13 hearing on the well’s boundaries.

Meanwhile, Helis claims its operations will be safe, and issued a statement that its prospective well is in “an extremely rural area” and will be enclosed by a 2 1/2 foot berm.

The site is in the far east of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale deposit, extending from east Texas through central Louisiana to the top of the Pelican State’s boot and southwestern Mississippi. Half a dozen companies are fracking St. Helena, the Felicianas and other Louisiana parishes northwest of St. Tammany now, along with Wilkinsin and Amite Counties in Mississippi. Helis is the first firm to propose fracking in St. Tammany and residents are on the lookout for other operators. Groby said an oil and gas company acquired land south of Madisonville last summer but he’s heard nothing about its plans.

The parish commissioners in St. Tammany clearly thought they could sneak this idea through, but they didn’t count on the size of the local opposition, or how quickly the foes of the plan would organize. Now, the parish — and the fracking proposal — are embroiled in political turmoil, and understandably so. For one thing, the agencies that are tasked with making sure that the fracking scheme won’t harm the environment — the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — are notorious for not doing that job very well. Environmentalists like Scott Eustis, coastal wetland specialist with the Gulf Restoration Network, warn that barium, chromium, lead or mercury from the fracking process could enter nearby Cane Bayou and Bayou Lacombe.

It’s impossible to understate both the critical nature of the water supply that’s at risk, or the harm that would be caused if fracking fluids or other pollutants contaminate that water, as has happened so frequently with the process, from Pennsylvania to Texas. The Southern Hills Aquifer is already under assault from industrial use in the Baton Rouge area.

And so the plan is so unpopular that voters in St. Tammany are even circulating recall petitions against the commissioners they believe have failed so far in killing the fracking plan. It has also aroused the ire of the “Green Army” of environmentalists led by Gen. Russel Honore:

Speaking at a hastily called press conference at the traffic circle in Abita Springs, Honore accused oil companies of “hijacking our democracy” and suggested that Brister and other officials have failed to stand up for the citizens when the parish announced earlier this week that the company would phase-in the project rather than go for a more aggressive drilling plan.

On one hand, it’s exciting to see so many residents energized by this environmental threat, and forcing their public officials to listen up. On the other hand, things in and around Mandeville never should have reached this point. Those who are elected to serve the public must understand that the risks to our most vital natural resource — our water supply — greatly outweigh any short-term economic benefit from natural gas drilling. Fracking is the worst idea to come to southern Louisiana in a long time — and that’s saying a lot. Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen.

For more information about the environmental threat posed by the Mandeville proposal, check out:

To learn more about Gen. Honore’s press conference in St. Tammany, please read:

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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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