SADOW: Fortress St. Tammany Has Gone Crazy Over A Coke Bottle

A: Horizontal hydraulic fracturing.

Q: What is the Coke bottle in St. Tammany Parish?

In 1980, a small-budget South African movie called The Gods Must Be Crazy hit the small screen. In it, a Coke bottle is tossed from an airplane flying over a tribal region of Botswana. It lands among the natives who, while finding it useful, become rent with dissension over it. Believing it came from the gods who provide everything but feeling compelled to reject the malevolent thing, one of their own is dispatched to return it to them, with the ensuing hilarity of someone who never has had contact with anything but primitive cultures suddenly now coming to grips with the outside world.

If you’ve ever seen the film – which became the highest grossing foreign film in America at the time – you can’t help but get the same feeling observing the reactions of the natives in St. Tammany Parish when confronted with the possibility that somebody might frac a well into existence on their sacred ground. These natives also have been blessed by the gods, with wealth (ranking in the top three parishes in the state in all of per capita, median family, and median household incomes) from having a major metropolitan area nearby yet a lake to separate them from the grubbiness of the hoi polloi and all its problems to the south. They also suddenly have something alien tossed into their midst, and struggle to fit it into their own paradigm that is detached from the rest of the world.

And it’s something that discomfits a number, although unlikely anywhere near a majority, of people in the area. Ever since just weeks ago a driller announced it was going to frac a well, from the reaction of some of them you would have thought the world was going to come to an end. The highlight came with a meeting last week in the parish where speakers intoned that the worst case scenarios were a near certainty when it came not just to the fracking process, but after. Although there’s no legal recourse for the parish to involve itself in the actual process – although it can regulate in related matters as haveBossier and Caddo Parishes – now a suit has been filed claiming irregularities in the state and federal permitting process that seeks to slow down the awarding of it.

When New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist James Varney wroteabout the juxtaposition of the energy-hungry lifestyles of fellow attendees of this meeting to their willingness to entertain hysterical and paranoid scenarios of obtaining that energy near their backyards that culminates into a NIMBY attitude, this got state Rep. Tim Burnsall in a huff, declaring that Varney unfairly ridiculed these poor soulsand proceeded to send out an alarm that “the fracking site chosen off Interstate 12 and Highway 1088 is zoned residential and is 2,000 feet from a school.” Of course, not that drilling a well is an unusual thing in St. Tammany; there are dozens of producing ones in the parish, and more again inactive.

And, by way of perspective … if I were to crane my head out the window in front of me as I type and look to the left, likely I could see the hulk drilling what is identified on its permit as well #246890 (Dickson 37 well 2), a half mile away. No production yet, but I’m hopeful that maybe if it gets online its production could wrest our royalties into triple digits for this year.

What we are getting comes from a well about a mile to the east (too far for me to see from here straight out the window, as completed wells have much lower horizons), #239530 (Dickson 37 well 1), which ended drilling Dec. 20, 2009 at a depth of 15,737 feet. Although actually technically in Caddo Parish, the horizontal drilling places most of its production into our section in Bossier Parish. Of its 19,465 mcf of gas delivered as of the Mar. 1 reporting date for the month’s production, 17,518 came from Bossier. (This isn’t magic by which I get this information, but from the state’s handy SONRIS website.)

On the way to Mass yesterday, I drove by five more wells, all operational or close to it. Two were within 200 yards of an elementary school and a hundred or so residences. Those two also were a half mile north of a high school, along with three others within a mile of it, one of the latter being 200 yards from a subdivision. And for those first two plus the Dickson 37 wells, within a mile and a half radius live several thousand people while U.S. Highway 80 is a half mile from all except the Caddo well, which itself is within a mile of the Jimmie Davis Bridge. Oh, by the way, they were all fracked, and, as readers may have gathered, I’m still here, not drinking poisoned water or breathing foul air or experiencing any of the maladies spoken of at the meeting, and neither has my severely immunocompromised wife. To almost anybody who has any experience living around a fracking environment, the reaction of the restless St. Tammany natives seems unfathomably alarmist.

The larger point being that, when proper safety protocols are followed, there is about zero chance of any deleterious effect happening. In all technology, something always can go wrong (perhaps St. Tammany denizens don’t realize that they’re about 100 miles downwind from one nuclear power plant and another sits almost on Lake Pontchartrain to the south) so harm could come as a result of a fracking operation. But it is an extremely remote possibility, and it borders on the unbalanced to think doom is so likely that anything related to fracking should earn a fatwa – especially since roughly 90 percent of all petroleum wells drilled since the 1990s have involved a fracking technique.

But St. Tammany Parish always has been weird that way, with a general bunker mentality having worked into its prevailing localized political culture. Perhaps more than any other parish (Bossier perhaps being the only other one on par) it votes Republican and for conservative candidates, yet at the same time adopts the remarkably liberal trait of keeping its hand out to grab whatever it can from everybody else while avoiding reversing the transaction.

For example, two consecutive Republican parish presidents tacitly, if not explicitly, have endorsed past and present candidacies of Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu on the grounds that she brought home the bacon – never mind her promoting policies that disproportionately take and spend what parish citizens earn. And when the state closed the former Southeast Louisiana Hospital, current Parish President Pat Brister – a former top state GOP official – and Republican legislators, all of whom you would think would want the state to make a move to save taxpayer dollars and even improve service delivery by letting a nongovernment provider take it over, protested vehemently against this because of the potential reduction of direct state dollars and jobs into the parish that the move would trigger.

In other words, St. Tammany’s political elites fit marvelously into the state’s slowly deteriorating populist political culture. As long as they can reap the benefits and avoid all costs from something, they’re game, but as soon as it looks as if they’ll have to put a little down on something, this thing becomes anathema and they’ll do anything to avoid it. Such is the pattern seen on this issue – even as not only local governments could reap a financial windfall from the drilling activity, but so could the citizenry.

So Fortress St. Tammany has gotten itself into a tizzy over a Coke bottle. We’ll have to see whether they find a way to throw it back or have the histrionics shift into overdrive if they can’t.

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