While the House and Senate debate in the Nation’s Capital national energy legislation, the Bureau of Land Management isn’t waiting. On April 30, 2003, BLM finalized its plans approving the largest oil and gas project in the agency’s history: 82,000 oil and gas wells in the Wyoming and Montana Powder River Basin. The project authorizes up to 66,000 new coalbed methane wells in the two states.
Today, a coalition of ranchers, landowners and environmental groups filed suit against the proposal in Montana federal court, citing numerous problems with the project ranging from inadequate mitigation measures to insufficient safeguards for landowners. In the 12 million acre Powder River Basin, BLM authorized:
- 26,000 miles of new roads (enough to circle the planet);
- 53,000 miles of pipeline and powerlines;
- 8,000 excavated infiltration pits for water disposal;
- 300,000 acres of disturbed soils, rangeland and vegetation; and
- trillions of gallons of produced water to be depleted from aquifers and dumped onto the ground.
Tom Darin, representing the Wyoming Outdoor Council said, “We knew we’d get increased energy production on public lands in this administration. The Powder River Basin project, however, was the perfect opportunity for BLM to live up to the other half of its promise: to utilize the latest and best technologies to reduce impacts. By failing to include alternatives that addressed aggressive water treatment and phased development to reduce overall impacts, BLM has let the public down once again.”
Eric Barlow is a rancher in the Basin and a member of PRBRC, “Of the federal minerals at play in Wyoming, 3.2 million acres are split-estate, leaving the landowner with little or no say in development on their private lands. The BLM is approving massive development that is going to take place on the backs of landowners and ranchers who work this land everyday.”
Nancy Sorenson is a rancher in the Powder River Basin, and Chair of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, “The BLM failed to provide a good range of alternatives for the management of the water. Water is scarce out here and BLM also failed to safeguard the depletion of our aquifers and to protect us from impacts to artesian and domestic wells on which we all rely.”
Clint McRae, a Montana rancher in the Basin and member of WORC added, “We’ve got sixteen springs that draw from coal seam aquifers on this ranch and they’re the heart of our ranching operation. Under BLM’s plan, we could lose all of them. That’s not doing it right.”
“Our lawsuit is a last resort to stop unprecedented damage from this massive coal bed methane project,” said Johanna Wald, senior public lands attorney for NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “We tried every step of the way to find a responsible compromise solution. But the Bureau of Land Management ignored our efforts in its rush to fast-track the Bush administration’s national energy plan.”
“The BLM admitted these projects will have significant impacts on groundwater, surface water and air quality,” said Susan Daggett of Earthjustice an attorney for the coalition. “But they have jumped into this without figuring out how to effectively mitigate these impacts. The National Enviornmental Policy Act requires that agencies ‘look before they leap.’ That was not done in this case. We believe this plan is not legal.”
About Coalbed Methane
CBM is natural gas trapped in subsurface coal deposits that also serve as aquifers. To allow the methane to escape to the surface, CBM extraction involves the “dewatering” of coal seams in significant quantities. In the Powder River Basin, the average CBM well discharges and wastes 15,000 to 20,000 gallons of water per day onto the ground surface, with enormous impacts to soils, vegetation and aquatic life. For the 77,000 CBM wells expected in the PRB in Wyoming and Montana, BLM predicts 4 trillion or more gallons of water to be wasted onto the ground surface over the next 15 years. Recharge of local aquifers may take hundreds of years.
Another unique impact associated with CBM involves the added energy requirements to power submersible water pumps for each well, meaning additional power plants in Wyoming and 5,300 miles of overhead powerlines. Those impacts, added to 26,000 miles of new roads, 53,000 miles of pipelines, 300,000 acres of soil loss, thousands of excavated reservoirs to slowly bleed CBM wastewater into the water table, along with hundreds of compressor facilities will, in BLM’s words, change the 12 million acre mixed-grass and rugged prairie of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to an industrial zone.