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Coalbed Methane in the Powder River Basin

Coalbed Methane in the Powder River Basin

Natural gas, the cleanest-burning of the fossil fuels and a fairly plentiful resource, is a cornerstone of the Bush administration's energy policy. The Bush administration predicts a 50 percent increase in demand for gas over the next two decades. The focus of immediate concern and controversy is the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, where the United States Geological Survey estimates there may be as much as 100 trillion cubic feet of gas waiting to be found. Approximately 14,000 wells are now operating on about 5,100 leases and the administration wants to add another 66,000 or so wells. There is much at stake here, including wildlife habitat, water quality, and the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers.

On April 30, 2003, the Bureau of Land Management finalized its plans approving the largest oil and gas project in the agency's history: 82,000 oil and gas wells in the Powder River Basin. The project authorizes up to 66,000 new coalbed methane wells in the two states. The BLM, in finalizing its plans, released two environmental impact statements (links at right) analyzing the proposed leasing in Wyoming and Montana. Early drafts were seriously criticized by the Environmental Protection Agency [read the EPA's comments here] which found them "inadequate" and "environmentally unsatisfactory." The BLM rewrote the EISs, but the latest documents still fail to ask the fundamental question: should development take place on such a massive scale, with its attendant unavoidable damage and without adequate mitigation measures in place? The EISs never ask this question, but simply analyze the effects of future development based on past leasing.

Coalbed Methane

As the name suggests, this hydrocarbon is methane trapped in coal seams that is stopped from drifting upward by water that sits on top of the seam. Until about ten years ago, coalbed methane was considered a hazard and nuisance that was simply burned off -- "flared" -- as miners went after the coal. Today, however, it is a valuable resource due to facts that it is relatively clean burning, reasonably easy to transport from place to place, and in great demand.

To capture the methane, miners drill into the coal deposit, inject water under great pressure to crack it, then pump the water -- both water they've introduced and naturally occurring water -- to the surface. The gas follows along behind and is put directly into a network of pipes where it can be directed to wherever it is needed.

What's the Problem?

The water that accompanies the gas -- "produced water" -- is laden with salts, arsenic, iron, barium, and manganese. Some is clean enough to drink, but most is far from fit for consumption or for irrigation. It can kill crops and wild plants and damage aquatic life in streams.

One way to dispose of the produced water is to reinject it into the ground back to where it came from, but this reinjection is expensive and is therefore uncommon. Reinjection is also not perfect, and can result in contamination of the underlying aquifer. The cheapest disposal method is to simply flush the water into streams, which can cause all kinds of problems for the crops, livestock, and wildlife that depend on water from those streams. Another method the government prefers and that environmentalists and ranchers are fighting to stop, is to pour the water into unlined pits, three or four thousand of them if all the wells are developed, and let it percolate into the ground. This just delays the problems -- the water will eventually kill crops and pasturage and leak into streams. Remember, there are 14,000 or so wells now producing gas and produced water and the administration wants to add another 66,000 or so, with each of these wells producing about 20,000 gallons of tainted water a day.

What's at Stake?

The Powder River Basin covers about 13 million acres (or 20,000 square miles, approximately the size of Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined) in northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana. The land is rolling shortgrass prairie that supports a large array of wildlife: deer, elk, antelope, bear, prairie dogs, ferrets, eagle, and grouse, to name a few. Today, it is also home to many farmers and ranchers, who have lived and worked there for many generations. The 14,000 coalbed methane wells in production today have already wrecked thousands of acres of productive land and habitat.

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The new "land rush" in the West has nothing to do with homesteading and everything to do with energy extraction -- and ignoring environmental protections and property rights. Ranchers have turned to Earthjustice for help.  



Program Area:  The Wild
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