Attorney representing Abita Springs: “A full victory. … They failed in their duty to do the analysis.” Judge vacates St. Tammany drilling permit, says state must supply more documentation

Judge vacates St. Tammany drilling permit, says state must supply more documentation by Robert Rhoden, NOLA.com, August 10, 2015, The Times-Picayune

A judge in Baton Rouge has vacated a state-awarded drilling permit for Helis Oil Co.’s controversial drilling and fracking project in St. Tammany Parish and ordered the Office of Conservation to fully document the work it did in approving the permit. State Judge Timothy Kelley of the 19th Judicial District Court ruled in a hearing Monday (Aug. 10) at which the town of Abita Springs sought a judicial review of the drilling permit.

Lisa Jordan, an attorney representing Abita Springs, called it “a full victory. We got what we asked for . . . to vacate the permit.”

“They failed in their duty to do the analysis,” she said of the state Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Conservation, which granted the drilling permit last year. “We’re very happy with this decision.”

The judge cited three points regarding the permit:

whether alternative sites were considered;

the cost/benefits of the project; and

whether the state considered geologic fault lines in the area of the drill site.

But Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for Helis Oil, said the ruling simply means the Office of Conservation will have to supply the court more documentation.

“From our perspective, given that we’re under a cease and desist order anyway, it doesn’t change anything. We’re sort of in an holding pattern anyway.”

Beuerman said the company is still confident the project will become a reality. “We continue to believe that it’s not a question of ‘if’ it’s going to happen, but ‘when’ it’s going to happen.”

Attorneys for Abita Springs had asked the court to vacate the permit awarded last December, arguing the agency violated the state Constitution.

The town said Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh failed to analyze the numerous “grave” potential adverse environmental impacts of the project, nor did he discuss threats it may present to public safety, according to a court filing by Jordan, of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, and Caroline Wick, a student attorney.

Among other things, the petition cited the possibility of contamination of the aquifer that supplies St. Tammany’s drinking water, and says geologic faults beneath the earth could act as conduits for contaminants.

DNR attorney Daniel Henry Jr. countered that 73 oil and gas wells have been drilled in St. Tammany through the years. “The drilling of the vertical well will not impact the aquifer any more than the countless wells that have already been drilled into the same,” he wrote.

Henry argued the town’s case is intended to be a referendum on hydraulic fracturing. He asked the court to uphold the permit, saying it was awarded based on the commissioner’s “reasonable and unbiased interpretation of the law and regulations.”

DNR spokesman Patrick Courreges said Commissioner Welsh and the legal staff were reviewing the judge’s decision.

Helis Oil received the permit to drill an exploratory, vertical well on undeveloped land northeast of Mandeville. The company said if the well data were promising, it would seek amended state and federal permits that would allow it to drill horizontally and use the hydraulic fracturing method to release oil from a shale formation.

Helis began work at the site in June but halted the operation last month after a judge agreed that a court appeal by St. Tammany Parish and Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany could be “suspensive,” meaning the project cannot proceed until the appeal is decided.

In an effort to block the project St. Tammany government filed suit against the state last year, maintaining the parish’s zoning ordinances prohibit drilling at the site, which is zoned for residential use. Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which also opposes the project, was made a party to the suit.

But Judge William Morvant of the 19th Judicial District Court ruled in April of this year that the parish could not use the parish’s zoning and land-use regulations to block the drilling project. His decision is being appealed to the state’s 1st Circuit Court of Appeal. [Emphasis added]

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