With oil and gas exploration on the rise in Southwest Mississippi, supervisors in one county hope lawmakers will create an additional chancery judge position in anticipation of increased legal activity surrounding the energy boom.
Supervisors in Pike County passed a resolution in late October that essentially asked the Legislature to pass a bill that would establish another chancery position. As it stands now, the district that encompasses Pike, Amite, Walthall and Franklin counties, only has one chancery judge.
Honea said the districts surrounding the one that includes Pike County all have a minimum of two chancery judges.
“There’s all kinds of things that grow out of the oil and gas business,” Honea said. “Proof of ownership, leasing challenges, title complaints, and every kind of litigation you can imagine. A lot of it will be perfunctory, but some of it will be extended litigation.”
Honea, an attorney who’s practiced for 31 years, said he’s seen courtroom activity related to the oil and gas industry pick up with every boom cycle the sector enters. Currently, interest in Southwest Mississippi is high, driven primarily by the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, an oil deposit that wraps like a ribbon around Southwest Mississippi and Central Louisiana.
The marine-deposited formation has served as the source bed for drilling functions in Southwest Mississippi for the past few decades. Exploration and production companies have always been able to reach the formation’s deposits of oil and gas, but had not had the technology to actually retrieve it until the past few years. The “fracking” method of drilling, which uses high-pressure injections of chemicals, water and sand to break apart rock, or shale, formations has made what used to be unrecoverable oil and gas recoverable.
That, coupled with international interest in new sources for oil due to the fuel’s upward pricing trend, has made the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale and similar formations more important to the energy sector than they perhaps have ever been. And with increased interest comes increased activity, which leads to an increased caseload that Honea and his fellow supervisors think could eventually clog the chancery courts. It’s a possibility. Environmental groups are generally opposed to fracking, with their main concern the potential for groundwater contamination. In late October, a total of 17 different environmental advocacy organizations asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to force those producers engaged in fracking to disclose the chemicals they use to blast apart the shale. The groups said that information would be vital to alerting residents and businesses in affected areas of possible pollutants in the air and water.
The EPA currently requires electricity providers, some manufacturers and some mining operators to disclose similar information. The agency has not yet ruled on the fracking disclosure request. The Basin Research Institute at Louisiana State University estimates that the nearly-3 million-acre Tuscaloosa shale has the potential to produce 7 billion barrels of oil over its lifetime, which equals one year’s worth of consumption in the U.S.
The government affairs director for EnCana Corp. — one of the companies exploring the Tuscaloosa — told the Mississippi Business Journal in 2011 that it believes the shale could also produce natural gas liquids.
Honea said it was likely he and other officials would meet with their legislative delegation in early December to lay out their entire agenda for the 2013 session. A similar effort to establish an additional chancery judge for Pike County’s district failed in 2008.