Climate

Exploratory Drilling Approved For Louisiana Wetlands

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein/ThinkProgress

A dirt road off of LA Highway 1088 leads to Helis’ proposed fracking site.

The Army Corps of Engineers this week issued a permit for an oil and gas company to fill three acres of wetlands in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, where it will begin exploratory drilling — the first step towards hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The decision raised questions for local leaders and environmental advocates about how much control they have over their natural resources.

The wetlands, in the town of Abita Springs, are part of a pristine aquifer — home to Abita Brewing Company, Louisiana’s most famous beer, and the sole source of drinking water for miles around. Unsurprisingly in a town where the official seal shows a woman kneeling by the water, the proposal to start fracking has been met with community outrage. In fact, Abita Springs sued the Army Corps of Engineers over its failure to hold adequate public hearings on the issue. That suit, as well as one seeking to prevent the drilling under a land-use law, was dismissed.

Wetlands are natural buffers to the effects of climate change, including both flooding and drought. In addition, they are important to regional biodiversity and erosion control. Louisiana loses a football field’s worth of land every hour, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Part of the loss of land is due to oil and gas development.

Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons said he was “very disappointed” with the Army Corps’ decision to issue the permit.

“Louisiana has some of the best, sensitive, prettiest wetlands area in the world. Anything that can damage that or denude that is something we should really be thinking about not doing,” Lemons told ThinkProgress. “I’m of the understanding that the job of the Army Corps of Engineers is protecting wetlands.”

Stephanie Gray, a Louisiana State University professor who lives in the town of Covington in St. Tammany Parish, talked about her concerns about fracking to ThinkProgress in January.

“We’re concerned about damage to the natural environment,” she said. “We’re concerned about truck traffic, increases in accidents. And this particular drill site is about a mile away from a high school, so there aren’t only small towns being impacted, but a lot of subdivisions, businesses and kids, too.”

Ironically, the permit was issued less than two weeks after the Army Corps and the EPA released the new Waters of the United States rule, which offers protection to two million miles of streams and 20 million acres of wetlands that had not been clearly designated under the Clean Water Act. The rule clarifies what tributaries and wetlands are part of the overall water system and will decrease confusion and expense, the EPA and Army Corps said. The rule must be on the federal register for 60 days before it goes into effect.

A spokesman for the Army Corps’ Louisiana office said the new rule did not affect its evaluation of the permit, and that the agency was following the lead of the state agencies tasked with enforcing EPA standards.

“Some of the impacts to certain attributes of the environment — ground water, water quality — there are other agencies that have regulatory authority over those issues,” spokesperson Martin Mayer told ThinkProgress. The departments of Environmental Quality and of Natural Resources had already both issued permits for the exploratory drilling.

“We will not second guess them,” Mayer said. “We basically ensure that all the different aspects of the review have been satisfied.”

In a statement to NOLA.com, David Kerstein — president of Helis Oil and Gas Co., the company doing the exploratory drilling — said, “Helis is pleased with the corps’ decision after such thoughtful and meticulous review.”

In a section of the project’s website, the company says flatly that, “There is no risk of contamination to the aquifer.”

Lemons scoffed at Helis’ claim that pollution would never reach the area’s fresh water. “Let me tell you about the BP oil spill,” he said. “Let me tell you about a lot of other things that ‘can’t happen,’ that ‘won’t happen,’ that did happen.”

He also said the process has just made it clear that the state agencies should not be in charge of where fracking is allowed — especially state agencies that are funded by oil and gas permits. The town and parish will continue to seek legal action to stop the development of oil and gas drilling in the wetlands, he said.

A recent audit of the Department of Natural Resources showed the agency did a “horrific” job of regulating old wells, Lemons added. “They don’t fail at the beginning — it’s 20 to 30 years from now. God knows what’s down there,” Lemons said. “I’m not doing this for me… it’s protection of our kids and grandkids.”