Battle over lake drilling takes a break

The warring factions in the battle over oil and gas activity at Acadiana’s Lake Peigneur called for a timeout Wednesday at the State Capitol.

Senate Bill 585 went before the Louisiana House Natural Resources Committee as an instrument requiring new rules for public hearings before permits could be issued to drill, expand, convert or alter a solution-mined cavern at the lake. Now, it delays any permits from being issued before Jan. 31, 2016.

“We’re taking the temperature level down. We’re going to study the issues,” state Sen. Fred Mills told the committee.

Robert Baumann, a lobbyist for the company seeking to do the drilling, sat next to Mills at the committee room table. However, Baumann had little to say, other than introducing himself to committee members.

Like Baumann, Nara Crowley, president of the board of directors for Save Lake Peigneur Inc., was mainly there as an observer. She later sent out a mass email detailing the developments for residents.

“This year both AGL Resources, Inc. and Save Lake Peigneur Inc. have taken a different path. Trust and compromise have not been a part of the past. We are taking baby steps ... We may be able to reach an end to our differences,” she wrote.

The battle over drilling activity at Acadiana’s Lake Peigneur dates back to 1980, when a drilling rig pushed through the top of a salt mine and punched a hole in the bottom of the lake. The accident drained the water and dragged 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.

Underneath the lake are two salt domes. Mills describes the domes as gigantic formations rivaling the felled Twin Towers in size. Oil and gas officials claim the entire formation — including the two caverns — is the same size as Mount Everest.

AGL Resources, of Atlanta, has been trying to expand its operation at Lake Peigneur since 2006. Industry tunnels into the salt domes to create storage space for natural gas.

Residents are uneasy about new activity at the lake, which borders the homes of 4,000 people. The emergence of a sinkhole 40 miles east in Assumption Parish heightened their concern.

Then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco requested an extensive environmental study, leading to a lawsuit. The case settled in 2009 with an agreement for additional safeguards.

AGL still needed permits to start an expansion at Lake Peigneur. The company encountered delays in securring the needed permits.

Mills, R-St. Martinville, has worked for years to curtail oil and gas activity at Lake Peigneur, even showing grainy, decades-old news footage to the Senate last year of the water draining in a violent whirlpool after the drilling accident in 1980. The legislation always died.

This year, Mills declared, was the year after deciding that the trick was he needed to carefully tailor his proposals to only apply to Lake Peigneur. In addition to SB585, he filed Senate Bill 584 to 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.

With the agreement in place with AGL, SB584 will remain on the Senate floor while SB585 will move forward to spell out the delay in permits.

Mills said time is needed for a frank discussion about bubbling and foaming at the lake as well as possible geological issues at the salt dome itself. Bayou Corne residents saw bubbling before the Assumption Parish sinkhole emerged and forced them from their homes.

“Four thousand people live there. We want to make sure the data’s correct,” Mills said, referring to Lake Peigneur residents.

The committee voted, without objection, to advance SB585 to the full House.

Earlier in the day, the panel advanced legislation inspired by a different drilling mishap. “Is today salt mining day at the Legislature? We just keep getting all these bills,” asked committee member Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro.

In Assumption Parish, scientists believe a Texas Brine cavern was mined too closely to the outer face of a huge salt deposit, triggering a collapse that created a sinkhole. Nearby residents in the Bayou Corne community were ordered to leave their homes.

Senate Bill 209 would help homeowners get the pre-disaster value of their home from the oil and gas industry when a mandatory or forced evacuation lasts more than 180 days. State Sen. Rick Ward III, R-Port Allen, filed the legislation after a sinkhole opened up in Bayou Corne.

“I’m trying to address people who have been out of their home and want to be able to move on,” Ward said.

SB209 is on its way to the House floor.

Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/