Fracking opponents lose round in state appeals court

NOLA – by Robert Rhoden

Fracking opponents were dealt a big blow Wednesday (March 9) by the state’s 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, which upheld a district court ruling that St. Tammany Parish government cannot use its zoning regulations to block a proposed oil drilling project northeast of Mandeville. The controversial case is likely to move to the state Supreme Court.

The appeals court in Baton Rouge, which heard arguments in the case Nov. 5, upheld the April 2015 ruling of 19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant in the lawsuit brought by St. Tammany and the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany in an effort to block the project by Helis Oil & Gas of New Orleans.

Judge rules in favor of Helis Oil and the state Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Conservation.

“We’re pleased, obviously pleased with this ruling,” Helis spokesman Greg Beuerman said. “We anticipated this.”

“We’re hoping this will serve to send the right signal and break the log jam and allow us to move forward. Our hope is the parish will … realize they’ve played their hand as long as they can and should let this process proceed.”

Concerned Citizens President Rick Franzo said the group would appeal the decision.

He said the ruling expands the ability of oil and gas companies to drill in places that are in direct conflict with parishes’ master plans.

“Under this ruling, it does not matter if a piece of land is within a residential community, because even if the neighbors, the town, and the parish are all in opposition to it, and even if local zoning and other laws would make it illegal, the decision on whether an oil well can be drilled is the sole decision of Baton Rouge bureaucrats whose whims are, in practice, indistinguishable from oil and gas companies.”

Parish government spokesman Ronnie Simpson said the parish learned of the ruling late Wednesday afternoon. “‘We are going to consult our outside counsel and determine what the next steps would be,” he said.

In its decision, the appeals court said, “We believe, as did the trial court, that St. Tammany Parish’s zoning ordinances must yield to state law …” The court referred to the state law that says political subdivisions are “expressly forbidden” to prohibit or interfere with the drilling of a well by the holder of a state drilling permit.

The court held that parish zoning ordinances are preempted by state law when it comes to the state’s regulation of oil and gas activity. It also ruled that the state Office of Conservation, which granted a drilling permit to Helis, considered the provisions of St. Tammany Parish’s master plan in accordance with state law.

The court costs of $9,055 will be split 50/50 between the parish government and Concerned Citizens, which intervened in the lawsuit.

The proposed drilling and fracking project has been controversial since surfacing publicly in the spring of 2014. Many parish officials and citizens oppose the project on environmental grounds, expressing concerns that it could damage the aquifer that supplies the parish’s drinking water, open the door to the industrialization of the parish and harm property values.

Helis has a state permit to drill a vertical well on undeveloped land, zoned for residential use, east of Louisiana 1088 and just north of Interstate 12. Should the well data prove promising, the company has said it would then seek state and federal approvals to drill horizontally and use the controversial hydraulic fracturing process to release oil from a shale formation.

The company has said it could safely drill the well and would take steps beyond what is required by law to safeguard St. Tammany’s environment.

The parish government filed its lawsuit in June 2014 in hopes of halting the project.

Wednesday’s appeals court decision was among recent rulings to to go against fracking opponents.

In December, a federal judge in New Orleans rejected the town of Abita Springs’ argument that the Army Corps of Engineers improperly awarded a wetlands permit to Helis. And in January, a state court judge in Baton Rouge denied the town’s request to invalidate Helis’ drilling permit through an injunction.

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