Authored by Dr. Stephanie Houston Grey, Associate Professor at Louisiana State University
To many Louisianans, St. Tammany Parish, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain above New Orleans, is the ultimate home of the state’s Republican establishment, a suburban community of subdivisions and SUV ownerswho voted for John McCain, then Mitt Romney, and helped place Presidential hopeful Bobbie Jindal in the governorship. St. Tammany has also been friendly territory for the oil and gas industry, where companies led by Chevron established offices and headquarters after Katrina, lured out of New Orleans by the promise of a flood-free topology and welcoming populace.
But this image has always been too simple to capture St. Tammany. Progressives, aging hippies, young hipsters and the socially mobile have also flocked to the area’s laidback but cosmopolitan vibe and natural beauty. The environmentis at the heart of the Parish’s identity, and has been both its economic engine and spiritual solace. New Orleanians long journeyed here to escape heat and disease and bathe in St. Tammany’s legendary waters.
Parish under frack attack
When news broke of a fracking oil and gas extraction project proposed for St. Tammany earlier this year, residents were shocked. While Louisiana is a leader in oil and gas production, there hadn’t been an operating well in St. Tammany for 30 years. Oil and gas, the old timers said, was far beneath the surface, at depths too great for the industry to bother with–until now. St. Tammany is at the edge of the geological formation known as the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, an emerging oil and gas “play” that appears to be next in line for major production in the land-based drilling boom. While northwest Louisiana has seen the development of the Haynesville Shale, other parts of the country from the Northeast to the Mountain West have seen the sudden emergence of an extraction industry all around them.
To St. Tammany residents, the idea that their Parish might be fracked sank in, residents’ fears focused on the Parish’s aquifer. While the EPA defines as “single source” any aquifer providing at least 60 percent of the potable water to an area, the aquifer in St. Tammany is, literally, a “single source.” All of the Parish’s water–100 percent of both city water and rural wells—is drawn from this aquifer. Further, the aquifer in St. Tammany is part of the Southern Hills aquifer system, stretching all the way from Jackson, Mississippi to Baton Rouge, Louisiana,which provides water to more than 1 million people.
St. Tammany is also a place of marshes and wooded wetlands, home to six of the waterways in the state’s scenic rivers program, the most of any Parish. Among these are the Tchefuncte River, Cane Bayou, and the spectacular, nearly pristine, Pearl River along the Mississippi border, which traverse gorgeous and fecund wetlands. The Louisiana commonly imagined, replete with swamps, birds, alligators and fish, thrives still in St. Tammany.
Residents fight back
The threat of frack water and toxic chemicals from sources ranging from loss of containment on drill strings to stormwater runoff from open waste ponds–imagine frack wastes scattered by a hurricane– has stirred residents to a surprising and persistent resistance. Beginning with packed public meetings in historical towns, the opposition has included protests in front of drilling company offices and the drill site’s land owner. Wilma Subra, a chemist from Louisiana and McArthur Foundation “Genius” Award recipient, has presented to communities regarding the environmental and health impacts of oil and gas exploration. The community resistance has also held promotional events including bike rides and a free concert, “Frackstock.”
Check out a great original song about opposing fracking in St. Tammany.
The fracking opposition has organized through an alliance of local organizations, including the Citizens for a Frack Free St. Tammany, which I founded, and the esteemed Concerned Citizens of St Tammany, a citizen’s advocacy group. Thanks to citizen pressure and courageous council members, the issue of fracking has triggered hopeful change as the Parish government pledged to join citizens through legal actions including a possible fracking ban. Statewide groups including the League of Women Voters and the longtime foil of the oil and gas industry, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has also provided support. Prominent among these opponents of fracking has been retired Lieutenant General Russell Honoré, who stepped into the breach to take command of the faltering relief effort in the days after Katrina and, as a native son of Creole descent, is a folkloric hero. Now Honoré thunders across the state as the head of the Louisiana Green Army, a statewide environmental alliance.. See General Honoré addressing the crowd during a packed meeting at Abita Springs, LA.
A land-grabbing history
William Faulkner once said that in the south, the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past. Nowhere does this ring truer than in Louisiana. The initial drilling project proposed for St. Tammany ties the destiny of the Parish to a past that is once again present. The landowner of the project site, Edward Poitevent, who has leased his holdings for drilling, is the current representative of an “old family” that acquired their land from the Native Americans, among others, and made their fortune in timber, cutting broad swaths of the Parish. They still own at least 44,000 acres of land across St. Tammany, now under lease to Helis Oil and Gas.
Helis, too, has emerged from the Louisiana past; it bears the name of its founder, William Helis, a legendary figure in the oilfields of the state, who came here as a penniless Greek immigrant and became one of the wealthiest people on the planet. The company now fracks on a minor scale in North Dakota and Wyoming, but has left telling tracks, including fines for not having spill control plans and an explosion and a fatality in the Gulf of Mexico. Now Helis and Poitevent have joined forces in a new plan to cash in on Louisiana land.
This time, however, a strong and resistant community stands in their path with showdowns to come. In its next installment of the Louisiana fight over fracking, I will examine the regulatory aspects of drilling in Louisiana, and the fracking opponents’ legal strategies to halt the initial St. Tammany fracking project.