Oil company building support for fracking among Tammany business groups

Since mid-April, news coverage of the fracking debate in St. Tammany Parish has been dominated by pictures of anti-fracking activists holding signs, wearing masks and denouncing the plan by Helis Oil & Gas to put an oil well in the middle of a wooded tract in the parish.

Since the drilling plan became public in mid-April, the anti-fracking movement has maintained its momentum. Thursday night, some anti-fracking activists waited more than five hours through a Parish Council meeting only to hear the lone fracking-related item, last on the agenda, tabled on a procedural issue.

Far more quietly, Helis has been accumulating allies through a public-relations strategy that emphasizes reaching out to small groups at a time rather than taking the slings, arrows and verbal barbs that have been thrown at them during large public meetings.

Whether Helis’ strategy will ultimately prove successful in winning the hearts and minds of St. Tammany residents is an open question. But the strategy seems to be having some effect.

At least one powerful segment of the parish seems to have gotten on board with Helis’ plan: the business community.

Two of the three major business groups in the parish, the St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce and the Northshore Business Council, have issued reports or statements supporting Helis’ plan. The East St. Tammany Chamber hasn’t taken an official position, but its CEO said she hasn’t heard a negative word about the plan from members.

Fracking is a controversial process in which water, sand and chemicals are injected at high pressure into underground rock formations to create cracks from which oil and natural gas can be pumped to the surface. It has been blamed in other parts of the country for a host of environmental and human health concerns. Some communities either are attempting or have attempted to ban the practice — efforts that have met with varying levels of success.

In St. Tammany, one major area of concern has been whether the well would damage the Southern Hills aquifer, from which the parish draws its drinking water, and through which Helis would have to drill to get to the oil 12,600 feet down. Critics fear the well could endanger the water supply for 200,000-plus residents, but Helis insists there is no danger of that.

Despite the well-publicized fears of opponents, a St. Tammany West Chamber survey of members found that 69 percent of those responding were either supportive or not opposed to fracking, while 22 percent were opposed. The remaining 9 percent were undecided. The non-scientific survey also attempted to gauge whether chamber members consider themselves knowledgeable on fracking. Many of them said they do.

Lacey Toledano, the chamber’s president and CEO, said she wanted to conduct the survey because she wasn’t hearing anyone speak in favor of Helis’ plan to drill the well.

“Based on verbal feedback, we knew there were people that were pro-fracking, and they weren’t being heard,” she said.

Overall, fewer than 200 of the chamber’s more than 1,100 members responded to the survey, but Toledano said she was satisfied with the response.

“People don’t want to go to a Parish Council meeting,” she said, though she said the chamber thinks the parish’s elected officials — some of whom have come in for sharp criticism from people strongly opposed to the well — are doing a good job.

Though broadly supportive of Helis, Toledano said there were things it could have done better — such as reaching out to business groups earlier than it did. A Helis representative gave a presentation at a St. Tammany West Chamber board meeting earlier this summer, she said.

“Helis should have called business groups in the parish and made their presentation first, before the drilling announcement was made,” she said. “It came off as secretive.”

The Northshore Business Council — a group of several dozen CEOs, company presidents and managers from St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington parishes — recently issued a report on the impacts of the oil and gas industry on St. Tammany. While the report didn’t mention fracking specifically, the group’s executive director, Larry Rase, said in an email to the news media that the report was “timely,” and in an interview he said his group supports Helis’ efforts.

Helis is a “great company” and “good corporate citizens,” Rase said. The council supports the oil and gas industry in general because of the potential for positive economic benefit to local businesses, he said, noting that Chevron, LOOP, Pelican Energy and other oil and gas companies have major offices in St. Tammany.

Dawn Sharpe-Brackett, who heads the East St. Tammany Chamber of Commerce, said her group has been careful not to adopt an official position as yet. But she is looking at conducting a survey similar to the one the West Chamber did.

“It’s hard for business organizations to say they are against something that could have such a strong economic impact on the community,” she said. “I have not gotten any negative feedback from my members on it. It’s all been positive.”

The vocal opposition to the plan is something that Greg Beuerman, whose public-relations firm represents Helis, did not expect. The reaction forced the company to adjust on the fly, he said.

“Our initial response was to answer questions from policymakers, the ones who are going to have to answer to their constituents,” he said. And even though the company has refused to appear in front of any of the crowds that have gathered to discuss the proposal, company representatives have attended “every single town-hall meeting,” he said.

The company decided that engaging with people in small groups, in some cases one-on-one, was a better plan, and it has been holding as many as four of those meetings a week, he said.

Business groups in particular were targeted, Beuerman said, but the company did not turn down meetings with others. For instance, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation met with Helis and then issued a report urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject Helis’ application for a wetlands permit it needs to drill at the site.

Beuerman said the company is not interested in winning a popularity battle but rather in being sensitive to residents. But Helis may have to wage a popularity battle at some point.

Opponents of the well are demanding that the Parish Council pass an outright ban on the practice. Failing that, they are promising to use a petition drive to try to force a referendum on the issue.

If it comes to that, Beuerman sounds confident.

“I think the tide will continue to shift,” he said of public opinion.

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.