State Supreme Court Won't Hear St. Tammany Fracking Appeal

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A sharply divided Louisiana Supreme Court has refused to hear a challenge to the state Department of Natural Resources' decision to award a permit to a company that wants to drill an oil well in St. Tammany Parish.

         Helis Oil & Gas had said before the decision that it's ready to begin drilling an exploratory well, and will begin moving a drilling rig onto the site June 29.

         The 4-3 vote leaves in place an appeals court ruling that Louisiana must consider a parish zoning ordinance against industrial activity at the site, but doesn't have to obey it.

         "Helis is pleased that these legal proceedings have come to a logical and long expected conclusion and look forward to being responsible corporate neighbors and contributors to the parish's quality of life," spokesman Greg Beuerman said in a statement to The New Orleans Advocate’s Faimon A. Roberts III and Times-Picayune.

         Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which joined the parish in the lawsuit, said it will ask the court to reconsider its decision. The group said in a statement that the ruling "sweeps aside long-standing constitutional principles for citizens and instead gives new, special privilege to certain companies."

         Justices Greg Guidry and Jeannette Theriot Knoll took the unusual step of filing opinions Friday to explain why they thought the court should hear the case. Justice Marcus Clark also dissented.

         "This matter involves the enforcement of local zoning ordinances, which are fundamental to our system of self-governance and of great importance to the citizenry," Guidry wrote.

         He said it's not a typical case in which state law takes precedence over, or pre-empts, local ordinances, "because St. Tammany Parish is not attempting to regulate the production of oil and gas, but is instead striving to protect its desired quality of life through a constitutionally-authorized process."

         Knoll wrote that the case presents "important, difficult, and challenging issues that this court should address."

         Even though the area has been zoned residential since 2010, the department's commissioner of conservation approved Helis' drilling permit in 2014, she wrote.

         "Unlike local oilfield regulatory ordinances, which overlap and directly conflict with state oil and gas law, land use ordinances such as zoning codes" do not duplicate state law and cannot be pre-empted by state laws, she wrote.

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