Florida Parishes see rise in leases

Drilling in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale could mean an economic boom for several of the Florida Parishes, but concerns remain about the impact drilling could have on the environment and infrastructure, officials said.

Since the beginning of the year, leases for oil and gas drilling have exploded in East and West Feliciana, St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes, officials from each parish said.

“Thousands of acres have been leased (in East Feliciana Parish),” said David Dart, the parish’s clerk of court. “And they are still leasing.”

The action has been most intense in East Feliciana, but similar situations are playing out in neighboring parishes, officials said.

“There’s a lot of interest,” said Julian Dufreche, Tangipahoa Parish clerk of court. “They are working their way in this direction.”

About 25,000 acres had been leased in Tangipahoa Parish so far, much of it northeast of Amite in the Wilmer area, Dufreche said.

“We have had a big influx of activity for the last 11 months,” said Felicia Ann Hendl, West Feliciana’s clerk of court.

Leases began being filed after the first of the year, she said.

“We are acquiring a lot of leases,” said Dan Collins, a land man with an office at Jackson in East Feliciana Parish. “I have been working seven days a week since April.”

All told, more than 1 million acres of land in Louisiana had been leased for drilling in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, said Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, or LOGA.

The “sweet spot” is north of Baton Rouge and then just to the east and west, Briggs said. It extends into some southern Mississippi counties, he said.

Despite all the leases, just five permits for drilling in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale have been issued: three in East Feliciana and two in St. Helena, according to documents provided by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.

The Tuscaloosa Marine Shale has been compared to the Haynesville Shale in northwestern Louisiana, which provided a major windfall to several north Louisiana parishes, notably DeSoto, officials from the parish said.

One main difference between the two shales is the hydrocarbon: the Haynesville Shale is a natural gas shale, which is easier to extract, Collins said.

The Tuscaloosa Marine Shale is an oil shale, he said.

It’s too early to tell if the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale will provide an economic boost like the Haynesville Shale did, LOGA’s Briggs said.

“I don’t think you would see this many acres being leased if it wasn’t something positive,” Briggs said.

Parishes sitting atop the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale are trying to apply lessons from north Louisiana, where concerns arose about roads and groundwater.

“We don’t want them to come in here and tear up our little roads,” said Judith Kelly, East Feliciana parish manager.

The parish’s Police Jury reviewed its ordinances in light of the potential for increased traffic, much of which could be very heavy, she said.

Kelly also said that she had some concerns about water supplies, but drilling companies “assured us that where they would get the water would not affect our water systems.”

To extract oil from the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, companies employ a method known as “hydraulic fracturing,” or “fracking,” by which chemicals, water and sand are injected into the ground to create and prop open fissures in rock through which oil can be pumped out.

Drilling companies are increasing the amount of surface water used in the process to help protect groundwater supplies, Briggs said.

Nevertheless, East Feliciana’s Kelly said, it would be a concern that would have to be addressed.

“We have only two drilling companies up here,” Kelly said. “Those folks have been very nice, very accommodating so far.

“They are the best thing that happened to us in a long time,” she said.

John Hashagen, the parish manager and water superintendent in West Feliciana Parish, said he had no real concerns about the impact of fracking on groundwater.

The Tuscaloosa Shale deposit sits between 11,000 and 13,000 feet underground and is protected by two impervious limestone layers, Hashagen said.

“They are going to have an impact with the heavy drilling equipment on roads. I don’t know how they are going to handle that,” Hashagen said.

“It’s new territory for us,” Tangipahoa Parish President Gorgon Burgess said. “We would hope that when the permit was issued, we would get the location as to where that well is going to be drilled.”

Burgess also said that while the parish government could not stop the wells from going in, the parish would have to be proactive about the condition of roads being used by drilling companies.

“We have to do it case-by-case and be careful with our bridges,” Burgess said.

All of the officials were optimistic about what producing wells could mean financially for their respective parishes, but said that it was too early to project potential dollar figures.

Wells could be producing within 12 months, said LOGA’s Briggs.

But there is no guarantee that it will pan out, said land man Dan Collins.

“If you have the least little failure, this whole play could turn around on a dime,” Collins said. “If it works, it’s going to be a stampede.”