DeSoto officials share shale ups, downs with counterparts

11 15, 2011 by Shreveport Times

MANSFIELD — DeSoto Parish's elected officials and public agency leaders can admit they were caught off-guard in early 2008 when this thing called the Haynesville Shale essentially erupted underneath their noses without notice.

But they now can boast that their fast learning curve about the ins and outs of the emerging play has made them experts of sorts. So that's why a group of more than a dozen officials from Pointe Coupee, West Feliciana and East Feliciana parishes met Monday with DeSoto's leaders in an informal question-and-answer session facilitated by The Coordinating and Development Corp.

Those three and other central Louisiana parishes are sitting over the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale that stretches from Texas across Louisiana and into Mississippi. It's an oil and gas formation that's enjoying renewed interest because of the advances in hydraulic fracturing that makes exploration of the previously out-of-reach minerals possible.

City, parish and economic development officials wanted to hear first-hand from DeSoto what to expect. The overriding message shared by Mansfield Mayor Curtis McCoy and echoed by others was: The Haynesville Shale has its "ups and downs but the ups outweigh the downs."

After hearing the good and the bad, Scot Byrd, director of economic development for the Pointe Coupee Economic Development Endeavor, termed the session as "phenomenally helpful." The contacts made were essential, he said, as their parish begins preliminary planning for issues such as road and land use, water supplies and disposal and workforce development.

So far, only a few test wells have been drilled into the Tuscaloosa Marine. "Anecdotal reports are looking positive, but there's nothing official," Byrd said. But with the interest expressed from oil and gas companies in the permitting process, officials in central Louisiana expect to seek activity there ramp up over the next 14 to 18 months, he said.

DeSoto's delegation didn't sugarcoat the problems. Water has become the top concern in the Haynesville Shale development, ranging from the source of the millions of gallons used to frack wells to the disposal of the waste product. And road damage will be a continuous issue, said state Rep. Richard Burford.

"It's going to take a toll on your roads," he emphasized in explaining little or no help can be expected from state coffers even though there have been informal talks about shifting more severance tax money to parishes with heavy oil and gas activity.

DeSoto Police Juror Jerry Moncrief suggested a "good permitting process" should be in place to direct the heavy truck traffic to state highways or roads not so venerable.

With those trucks comes complaints about speeders, but overall the crime rate in DeSoto is unaffected by the influx of shale workers, Sheriff Rodney Arbuckle said. There has been an increase, however, in oilfield equipment thefts that are typical with the mobile industry.

Hardly a day passes without an emergency related in some way to the wells and drilling sites, DeSoto Fire District No. 8 Chief David Manning said. Not all are of the magnitude of a blowout, fire or spill. But traffic accidents, medical problems and rescues happen, which Manning doesn't solely blame on the industry but the sheer volume of people living and working in the parish because of the natural gas development.

"We are having a very, very positive working relationship with the industry people," he said.

Jill Heard, dean of the Louisiana Technical College's Mansfield Campus, reviewed how the region's educational facilities quickly stepped up with workforce training courses to meet the industry's needs.

The visitors broke out in collective grins when the dollar signs were paraded before them. CDC Executive Director Max LeComte shared on behalf of schools Superintendent Walter Lee how shale money has paid for new schools and increased employee salaries.

Arbuckle said his office, as the property tax collector for parish governing bodies, recorded $18.5 million in ad valorem taxes 12 years ago and topped $61 million last year. His half-cent sales tax that generated $2.6 million in 2004 reached $14.5 million in 2010.

"As you can see you will have a lot of money to work your problems out with," Arbuckle said. He agreed with Manning that most of the shale workers are "good people" who put in 14-hour work days to make a living for themselves and their families.

"We just want to know the questions we need to be asking," Byrd said. "We want to make sure we protect our community but be friendly to the oil and gas industry."