Three Wyoming-based conservation groups represented by Earthjustice filed suit in federal court to stop damage from coal bed methane production. The suit challenges the Army Corps of Engineers’ general permit that governs the construction of reservoirs for water from coal bed methane production wells as well as roads and pipelines in Wyoming.
The groups are the Wyoming Outdoor Council, the Powder River Basin Resource Council and Biodiversity Associates.
Coal bed methane is natural gas that is trapped in the fissures and fractures of underground coal beds by overlying water in underground aquifers. The gas is released when the water is pumped to the surface, at a rate of anywhere from several up to hundreds of gallons a minute, easing the pressure and allowing the gas to follow the water up. This water has been found to contain salts, arsenic, iron, barium and manganese.
The Corps’ general permit allows the construction of reservoirs to hold coalbed methane produced water. During the first 10 months of 2001 alone, coalbed methane drilling in Wyoming resulted in the withdrawal of 18 billion gallons of coalbed methane water .
“By issuing a general permit, the Corps of Engineers is treating these reservoirs like stock watering ponds. But they contain contaminated water from CBM wells and are more like wastewater treatment ponds than livestock ponds,” noted Steve Jones of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
“All of these ponds are unlined. That is part of their design. They are intentionally built to leak into the groundwater,” said Jill Morrison of the Powder River Basin Resource Council.
“The unique fish and aquatic plant communities in Wyoming’s streams are threatened by both the quantity and quality of CBM-produced water allowed by this ill-conceived and illegal general permit,” said Jeff Kessler of Biodiversity Associates.
The high salinity levels not only threaten rivers and streams, but also farms and ranches since many plants are sensitive to salinity levels in the water and soils. Over time these soils can lose their productivity as the salts begin to saturate the soils. Many ranchers are upset about this. Last year a Congressional committee heard from Ed Swartz, a third-generation rancher from the basin who said, “Myself and other ranchers and landowners in the Powder River Basin are facing very real and destructive impacts.” He told the committee that water pumped from coal bed methane wells threatens to destroy his hay fields. He added that it has already destroyed the vegetation in the creek bottom of Wild Cat Creek.
The Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming and part of Montana, has seen a huge surge in drilling for coal bed methane. Seven years ago, there were 110 coal bed methane wells in the basin. Today there are over 12,000 CBM wells that have been drilled in northeast Wyoming, with another 8000 wells that have been permitted for drilling. Coal bed methane now provides almost 8 percent of the nation’s reserve of natural gas, more than quadrupling its share of the reserve since 1989. Over 50,000 wells are expected to be drilled in the Powder River Basin by 2010. Current estimates are that the basin will eventually have between 2000 and 4000 reservoirs to serve all of these wells.