This Grassroots Louisiana Organization in a Conservative Parish Wants to Ban Fracking

July 15, 2016

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Citizens in Louisiana are attempting to use their grassroots movement to prevent a company from fracking in their community, and despite the odds have shown that community organizing and coordination can achieve results in the face of formidable obstacles.

In May 2014, Helis Oil and Gas, a privately owned company headquartered in New Orleans, announced it wanted to drill on about 960 acres of land in St. Tammany Parish, about 50 miles north of the city. St. Tammany is among the top parishes in Louisiana for average income, education level and school performance. It is also one of the state’s more conservative parishes; its president and the entire city council are Republicans. Yet a government watchdog group composed of unelected citizens has worked to prevent Helis from drilling for natural gas in its community. How?

Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany is a non-partisan group formed in 2012 by combining multiple and smaller watchdog groups that existed throughout the parish. After Helis’s public announcement, CCST and other parish residents swarmed a St. Tammany Parish Council meeting demanding the parish ban fracking. The concerns of the citizens included contamination of the local water supply, traffic congestion and the potential abandonment of the region by Helis once the well runs dry.

Vocal opponents of the company included Russell Honore, the retired U.S. Army general in charge of the task force for restoring order and assisting the people of New Orleans. Known for his no-nonsense approach in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Honore said bluntly at a public hearing on the proposed drilling site: “They [the oil industry] have hijacked our democracy.” Both CCST and St. Tammany Parish filed lawsuits against the Louisiana Commissioner of Conservation, the state official in charge of issuing drilling permits.

Rick Franzo, the president of CCST and a self-identified conservative, told, “Our lawsuit has never been about fracking. It has to do with municipalities determining their own future and zoning laws.” Still, Franzo and the CCST are concerned about the health effects of the drilling process.

“If we continue on our path, we will grow, but drilling will lead to people leaving,” he said.

CCST faces an uphill battle. Louisiana law expressly forbids local governments from interfering with drilling permits issued by the state – an unsurprising fact given the hefty political contributions legislators here receive from the oil and gas industry. At almost exactly the same time that Helis announced its decision to drill in St. Tammany Parish, the state legislature passed separate legislation, signed into law by former Gov. Bobby Jindal, which specifically exempted the oil and gas industry from lawsuits related to environmental damage.

Upon a public release request from CCST, St. Tammany Parish government emails showed that not only state officials were aligned with the oil and gas industry, but the parish’s former economic development director, Donald Shea, and another parish official had coordinated an attempt to bring more oil and gas industry supporters to parish meetings. In one of their email exchanges, Shea writes, “As we are able to tell our story better, the general heat will die down, except for the loonies.” (Following the publication of the email, Shea was fired.)

In the subsequent months following Helis’s announcement to drill, St. Tammany Parish and the CCST, with assistance from attorneys from Tulane University’s Environmental Law Center, filed suits to prevent Helis from fracking, arguing among other points that the company was not allowed under state laws to drill because of its proximity to both wetlands and fault lines.

Though lower courts dismissed the objections of the parish and CCST, both continued their appeal. Then, last year, CCST and the parish won a series of small victories when several judges made rulings in favor of the plaintiffs: In April 2015, a state judge ruled that St. Tammany Parish could prevent Helis from drilling while the matter was on appeal, and in August, a separate state judge ordered the state’s Commissioner of Conservation to release more information about how his office reached its decision to issue a permit. Much of the expert testimony in the decision making process came from people who had been hired directly by Helis, according to an article in The New Orleans Advocate.

In March of this year, state appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision, based on the Louisiana law preventing parishes from interfering with drilling permits issued by the state – something Franzo referred to as “absolutely crazy.” CCST and the parish appealed the decision.

Then, on June 18, the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. While a majority refused but did not state reasons for doing so, Justice Jeanette Theriot Knoll, in an unusual step, wrote a response to the writ stating: “In my view, this case is not resolved on preemption… Unlike local oilfield regulatory ordinances, which overlap and directly conflict with state oil and gas law, land use ordinances such as zoning codes are not duplicative of state law and, thus, are not subject to preemption by state oil and gas laws.”

Helis announced after the state supreme court’s decision that it would begin drilling at the proposed site. Less than a week later, on June 24, CCST and St. Tammany Parish filed a Reconsideration Writ, a maneuver asking the court to reconsider its decision. But legal experts say it is a long shot. Meanwhile, the health and rights of the citizens of St. Tammany Parish hang in the balance.

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Tags: anti-fracking campaigns, environmental effects of fracking, Fracking