In keeping with recent moves across the country to chip away at local control over fracking operations, a Louisiana state judge ruled Monday that St. Tammany Parish, located on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, cannot use its zoning regulations to block a proposed oil drilling and fracking project within parish borders.
Helis Oil & Gas Co., of New Orleans, wants to drill a 13,000-foot-deep exploratory well on undeveloped land it has under lease just north of the city of Mandeville. If the well data is promising, the company would then seek state and federal approval to drill horizontally and extract oil by fracking.
In his ruling, Judge William Morvant of the 19th Judicial District in Baton Rouge said energy permitting is the sole province of state authorities, and that any attempt by the parish to interfere with Helis' permits would be unconstitutional.
The state's pre-emption doctrine, Morvant reportedly said, "expressly forbids St. Tammany Parish from interfering or prohibiting the drilling of a well."
Louisiana's Times-Picayune newspaper called the development "a major defeat" for fracking opponents, who have raised concerns about the projects implications for the environment and public health.
Marianne Cufone, an attorney for Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, told the newspaper: "Obviously, we're disappointed. I think there were several ways to interpret the law that's out there, but the judge's interpretation was not our interpretation."
However, as the Times-Picayune notes, "the much-anticipated ruling, coming after a year of controversy over the project, does not mean Helis Oil & Gas Co. of New Orleans is free to start drilling."
St. Tammany Parish is likely to file an appeal, and Helis still needs a wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers before it could begin work.
And St. Tammany Parish Council member Jake Groby called on his council colleagues and citizens to continue the fight: "This is the beginning of the industrialization of St. Tammany, and I am asking the citizens to get off the couch, stand with us and defend their home," Groby said at the hour-long hearing before Judge Morvant. "We won't get just one [well], we're going to get dozens, if not hundreds of these things. Is that what we want to leave our children and our grandchildren?"