District Judge Sam Haddon from Helena lit a spark in the flammable debate over coal-bed methane last week when he ruled that the discharge of water from methane wells is not a “pollutant” under federal law.
Although critics of the coal-bed methane industry called the decision a “shock,” the courtroom victory is not yet a green light for more development, according to Mike Caskey, chief operating officer of Fidelity Exploration and Production Company.
In 2000, the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC) sued Fidelity after the company pumped water with a high salt content into the Tongue River without first getting a discharge permit. Now Fidelity has the option to drill 75 more wells on leases that were granted before a different NPRC lawsuit stopped the Bureau of Land Management from approving more leases until an Environmental Impact Statement is completed.
“Our approach will be the same as before,” says Caskey. “This decision said we have been doing our job correctly and abiding by the laws, and that we have, in fact, not been damaging the environment.”
Fidelity is a subsidiary of MDU Resources, a corporation which also owns Montana-Dakota Utilities, a distributor of natural gas and electric power in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Minnesota. Fidelity has about 250 coal-bed methane wells on 100,000 acres in the Powder River Basin of eastern Montana.
Ranchers and farmers are not pleased with the latest ruling. They claim the water, though safe for human and animal consumption, is toxic to plants because its dissolved salt content has obvious consequences for irrigated agriculture. Mark Fix, chairman of the NPRC’s task force on coal-bed methane, said he’s seen the effects on his land 130 miles downstream. “This is kind of strange,” Fix says. “We know if they pump out too much it will sterilize our soil and kill our crops. We’re going to appeal it. It’s not fair to say it’s not a pollutant.”
Coal-bed methane is held within coal deposits by hydrostatic pressure. To remove the gas, developers depressurize the aquifer by pumping water to the surface. This technique releases the methane, which can then be collected just like natural gas.
Until recently, the added complication of extracting coal-bed methane had made it less desirable to extract. But rising energy prices have prompted energy developers to explore gas fields across Montana, including Gallatin County. This summer opponents there persuaded county officials to pass a one-year ban on drilling.