Special Report

A Fracking Ban…in Louisiana?

Gutless Republicans turn green in a deep-red state.

By 6.10.14

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Drill here, drill now” has been a mainstay of Republican political rhetoric for quite some time, and with the near-miraculous revolution in domestic energy production, it’s no longer just a catchy slogan.

Oil industry experts are now actively predicting American energy independence by 2030. They even say the U.S. will overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s largest oil producer by next year. The meteoric rise in the domestic energy sector over less than a decade to create that bright future amid the otherwise dismal economic picture is perhaps the only thing saving America from a full reprise of the 1930s.

Which is why a sudden development last week in a nearly universally Republican area of one of America’s most promiscuous oil-producing states has political observers gobsmacked, and conservatives of several stripes pouring stiff drinks.

On Thursday, June 5, the St. Tammany Parish Council, representing the most prosperous and “conservative” of Louisiana’s local governmental units (called counties everywhere else in America), voted unanimously in favor of a resolution to halt the very process that has set the country on a course for energy security.

The Council, which is overwhelmingly Republican, resolved Thursday to hire outside attorneys and pursue legal action in order to stop the state's Department of Natural Resources from granting a permit for Helis Oil Company of New Orleans to drill an oil well in St. Tammany Parish. St. Tammany is on the far southeastern edge of an oil play called the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, a field containing some seven billion barrels of crude. It's one of several major shale oil plays popping up around the country thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which the politicians in St. Tammany, acting on orders from the angry mob stirred up by environmental groups, are now seeking to ban.

This is a parish that voted for John McCain over Barack Obama by a 76-23 margin, and for Mitt Romney over Obama by a 75-23 margin. “Drill Here, Drill Now” signs are not unknown in this collection of New Orleans bedroom communities, and Covington, the parish seat, serves as a regional headquarters for Chevron. St. Tammany is represented in Congress by the wildly popular Steve Scalise, who might be the most pro-domestic energy politician on Capitol Hill, and who conducts an annual sightseeing tour so his colleagues can see how gas and oil is produced elsewhere in the district.

No matter. When Edward Poitevent III, a landowner seeking to exercise his mineral rights on an empty plot of wilderness east of the city of Mandeville, hired Helis to drill, he set off a firestorm of bored housewives, leftists coming out of the woodwork, out-of-town activists, and local pols along for the ride.

At issue? As with most controversies about hydraulic fracturing, panic about groundwater is driving the opposition to drilling—and the assault on Poitevent’s property rights.

Helis’s plan is to commence hydraulic fracturing of the well on Poitevent’s property at some 13,000 feet below the earth’s surface. That’s more than 10,000 feet—the equivalent of six Freedom Towers stacked on top of each other—of solid rock below the bottom of the Southern Hills aquifer supplying drinking water to the residents of St. Tammany. Yet several environmental activist groups have rushed in with horror stories about flammable tap water and environmental destruction, whipping locals who haven’t voted Democrat in decades into paroxysms of fear and creating a laughingstock in a state where oil-drilling is a passion second only to boiled crawfish and LSU football.

Perhaps chief among the activist groups stirring opposition to Poitevent’s well is the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, a local affiliate of the infamous Waterkeeper Alliance (which is funded by trial lawyers and presided over by the tremulous Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.). LEAN’s president, Marylee Orr, came to the organization from a non-scientific background; she owned an art gallery and sold real estate before becoming an enviro-community organizer. Orr’s partner, Wilma Subra, however, is a chemist and environmental consultant who recently completed a six-year term on the EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Such an organization wouldn’t be expected to influence “conservative” Republican politicians, but within six weeks of its efforts, Parish Councilwoman Maureen O’Brien, a member of the Northshore Tea Party’s Executive Committee and a “conservative” local radio talk host, was posting maps of “fracking accidents” from the website of EarthJustice, an organization whose mission and activities are precisely what one might expect from such a name.

The sudden surrender to anti-fracking hysteria in St. Tammany has taken both the oil industry, which has largely won the argument on hydraulic fracturing across the country, and the state’s GOP leadership by surprise. Until the end of May, many of the more prominent conservative activists in the parish had no idea there was serious opposition to energy exploration. After all, St. Tammany has several dozen oil wells already in and out of operation, though prior to the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale find it had been some twenty-five years since the last one was drilled.

But after a few town hall meetings the anti-frackers and some members of the council, including O’Brien, Marty Gould (a river pilot), and Jake Groby (the manager of a wastewater plant in neighboring St. Bernard Parish; Groby cites this experience as evidence he understands geology), have convinced the parish’s political class and some sizable portion of the public that fracking Poitevent’s well would foul the water supply.

Interestingly, these “conservative Republicans” are to the left of President Obama’s former EPA secretary Lisa Jackson, who was quoted on several occasions as saying there is no evidence of hydraulic fracturing contaminating the water supply. “I’m not aware of any proven case where [hydraulic fracturing] itself has affected water,” Jackson said in May 2011. And in April 2012, Jackson said, “In no case have we made a definitive determination that [hydraulic fracturing] has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.”

Nevertheless, O’Brien and Gould are flogging a Cornell University study that purports to document instances disproving Jackson’s statements. Even that study has holes. During a June 2012 appearance on Capitol Hill, the author of that study, Professor Anthony Ingraffea—who co-authored another study purporting to show that hydraulic fracturing posed twice the threat to global warming that coal power plants do and was quickly debunked by another researcher at his own university—said this:

Fracking doesn’t cause water contamination. You are talking about one hour during well stimulation over thirty years. It happens because you drilled a well, not fracking it. I agree, fracking has not caused materials to migrate through 4,000 feet of rock to contaminate drinking water.

Members of the St. Tammany Parish Council claim that research supports their demand for a ban on fracking, but it doesn’t appear that anyone from St. Tammany even bothered to consult with their colleagues in the northwestern part of Louisiana. The Haynesville Shale in that area has been actively fracked since 2007, and there is no evidence whatsoever of the environmental effects that have the St. Tammany anti-fracking mob in terror.

In the end, it’s not so much left-wing environmental activism at work in St. Tammany as something equally injurious to American prosperity—incompetent Republican politicians eager to look “reasonable” on the six o’clock news. None of that parish’s supposed leaders bothered to call into question whether the anti-fracking mob was being ginned up by trial lawyer-funded, hard left environmental groups. Certainly, none of them bothered to engage in so much as a fact-finding expedition to the Haynesville, Marcellus, Barnett, or Eagle Ford shale fields.

Instead, they postured, preened, and demanded the oil industry face an inquisition. When takers weren’t immediately found, they joined the mob in jumping off a cliff. Things careened so badly out of control last week that prior to the council’s vote to hire attorneys to fight fracking, one audience member held a sign reading “It's a Fracking Inequality: Wealth for Few, Problems for Many,” and none of the council members batted an eye in response.

In short, St. Tammany will attempt to block oil drilling, the revenues from which fund 15 percent of Louisiana’s state budget.

One wonders whether Governor Bobby Jindal will consider calling the state legislature back into session to debate adjustments to Louisiana’s budget, perhaps to strip 15 percent of St. Tammany's state funds for roads, schools, state police, and the like.

One also wonders, since the parish council apparently favors the legal system to such a large degree, if Poitevent might consider the attempt to strip him of his mineral rights without evidentiary showing of harm as taking of his property without due process or just compensation. He could take his claim to court.

Those are just a few questions the rest of a red state is asking in the aftermath of the St. Tammany’s leftist, “waterkeeping” lurch.

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About the Author

Scott McKay is publisher of the Hayride, which offers news and commentary on Louisiana and national politics.