Bill would halt oil activity near Lake Peigneur

After years of trying, supporters say they may have found a way to temporarily stop oil and gas companies from expanding the use of salt domes around Acadiana’s Lake Peigneur.

On a 4-2 vote, the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources advanced legislation invoking a moratorium on new energy-related activities near the lake that famously drained in 1980.

Many of the nearly 4,000 Vermilion and Iberia Parish residents who live around Lake Peigneur say the water occasionally bubbles, an indication that a sinkhole could be forming.

They also have been concerned the energy industry would expand its storage operations and compromise the integrity of the caverns.

State Sen. Fred Mills, R-St. Martinville, who sponsored Senate Bill 584, said he had been working to pass the measure for at least seven years.

“This time we have a real chance,” he said after the committee voted. Mills, who has introduced similar legislation in earlier sessions, said he took the advice of some opponents to last year’s attempt and tailored the bill narrowly to apply only to Lake Peigneur. Versions forwarded in earlier years were worded too broadly, he said.

SB584 would forbid the state Office of Conservation from authorizing or issuing any permits for a cavern for storage or waste disposal in Vermilion or Iberia parishes. The moratorium applies only to salt structures that have “structurally failed if that failure was man-made.”

The moratorium would not be permanent and could be lifted if the Legislature agrees, Mills said.

In 1980, a drilling rig pushed through the top of a salt mine and punched a hole in the bottom of the lake, draining the water and dragging barges into the suction. The volume of the water triggered a backflow from the Delcambre Canal that created a temporary waterfall and transformed the lake from a freshwater fishing hole into deep, brackish waters.

Mills said the two salt domes are about the size of the Twin Towers of the former World Trade Center in New York City. Oil and gas officials say the whole structure, which includes the two caverns, is about the size of Mount Everest.

AGL Resources, of Atlanta, have been trying to expand its operation at Lake Peigneur since 2006.

“There is no intention to hurt the oil and gas industry,” state Sen. Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan, said. “We’re trying to be a conduit for the voices of our constituents.”

Both the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association opposed the legislation.

“This is a permanent moratorium on a single company,” countered Robert H. Baumann, a Baton Rouge lobbyist representing AGL Resources. “This bill won’t solve anything.”

He said he also represents Targa Resources. The Houston corporation is looking to expand its activities in the Lake Charles area, but this legislation could influence that job-creating decision, Baumann said.

How can a state that so vocally opposed a moratorium on offshore drilling, yet be OK with limiting expansion at the salt domes, Baumann asked.

A crowd of residents had gathered to testify.

“We’re not asking for a red light. We’re asking for a caution light,” said retired Army Gen. Russel Honoré, testifying for the Green Army, a coalition of environmental groups.

During the speech of one supporter, Mills chatted with senators on the committee. He then quickly whispered into the ear of a resident waiting to speak. When her turn came, she said she and the others would skip making statements.

Mills said some of the senators who supported the legislation were going to have to leave and he wanted to make sure the vote took place before they left.

For YES to allow a moratorium (4): State Sens. Bret Allain II, R-Morgan City; J.P Morrell, D-New Orleans; Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings; and Rick Ward III, R-Maringouin.

For NO to SB584 (2): State Sens. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, and Norby Chabert, R-Houma.