As the pressure rises to develop subterranean deposits of coal-bed methane in Montana, so does the commitment of the opposition. Last week, Gallatin County commissioners enacted a one-year ban on drilling for coal-bed methane in response to a Texas company’s plans to look for the gas on the Bozeman Pass.
Also last week, Crow Indian Reservation landowners who reside off the reservation held a meeting in Billings to air their concerns about a deal signed in June between the tribe and a Colorado company to investigate a portion of the Powder River Basin. That arrangement could mean the development of 400 wells per year, if 80 tests this fall prove valuable.
A week earlier, the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC) asked a federal judge to stop the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from issuing new leases until the status of previously issued, but currently contested, leases are resolved in district court. NPRC alleges that the BLM failed to examine their environmental effects or allow public comment as required by law.
Chemically, coal-bed methane is identical to natural gas. The difference is how the gas is extracted. A product of the same process that turns ancient plant material into coal, natural gas is trapped in open spaces beneath the surface of the earth. Because it’s under pressure, developers need only drill down to the pocket and let the gas flow.
Coal-bed methane, however, is held within the coal by hydrostatic pressure. To remove the gas, developers must first depressurize the aquifer by pumping water to the surface. This technique releases the methane, which can then be collected just like natural gas. The complication of extracting coal-bed methane made it less desirable to energy explorers until natural gas prices began to rise in the last two decades.
According to Tom Richmond, administrator for the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, coal-bed methane currently provides only eight percent of the nation’s gas supply. The Powder River Basin area in southeastern Montana is estimated to contain 39 trillion cubic feet of coal-bed methane. The nation uses 30 trillion cubic feet of all types of gas per year. “At today’s prices it wouldn’t be economical to produce coal-bed methane,” Thompson says. “But the assumption is that the price will increase, as it always does.”
As prices rise, interest in coal-bed methane rises too, and those who represent farmers and ranchers find themselves in an escalating battle. Last year when the BLM awarded leases for 600,000 acres of mineral rights, the NPRC responded with a lawsuit alleging inadequate environmental review and public comment.
The water pumped out of the coal-bed seams to release methane, although safe for human and animal consumption, is toxic to plants because of its salinity. And when the water is discharged into rivers, this has obvious consequences for irrigated agriculture and for plankton-supported fisheries downstream.
These effects were not addressed in an environmental impact statement, but were issued under a prior resource plan that doesn’t account for coal-bed methane, according to Amy Frykman, communications coordinator for the NPRC. The group also contends that the BLM needs to determine the effect of pumping water from the aquifers in drought-ridden eastern Montana.
“To us, it’s totally irresponsible to both ruin the river and leave the aquifer dry,” Frykman says.
In addition, NPRC claims that landowners were not provided adequate notice when the BLM posted lease sales in its Miles City office. A full environmental review would have included public comment, and ranchers and farmers could have weighed in with their concerns about water.
“If the BLM had done the [environmental impact statement] like they were supposed to, landowners could have come to the meetings and said, ‘Don’t lease out this area because my house is on it, or over here where we have a spring,’” Frykman says.
For Gallatin County Commissioner John Vincent, the opposition to coal-bed methane among his constituents is as much about aesthetics and economics as it is about the environment. When JM Huber, a Texas-based energy corporation, applied to develop mineral holdings on a zoned area of the Bozeman Pass, the county responded by changing its ordinances.
“There are plenty of examples of property values cooling off because Realtors are obliged to mention the prospect of drilling,” Vincent says. “It’s a beautiful area and I don’t think state law anticipated coal-bed methane drilling in an area like that.”
The ban on drilling is a novel use of zoning ordinances, and Vincent views the moratorium as a test of local control and the county’s commitment to land-use planning. Huber acquired the mineral rights before the county stated its opposition to drilling and has filed suit against the county. “We want to encourage zoning,” Vincent says. “People that zone an area zone it for a specific purpose, and we want to protect that.”
Commissioners passed the ordinance in early July and it became effective last week. In between, Huber applied for a permit for natural gas instead of coal-bed methane. By looking for natural gas, Huber could accomplish its goal of testing the Bozeman Pass for coal-bed methane, since drilling would pass through all deposits, according to Vincent.
Huber’s application was approved by the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation last week. But Vincent and his fellow commissioners have additional language ready that will add oil and gas drilling to the one-year ban, which they plan to amend in mid-September.
In turn, the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation anticipated the county’s expansion of the ban to include all drilling on the Bozeman Pass. So they set the effective date of Huber’s approved application for Sept. 15 to give the county time to respond.
“We’ll have amended the moratorium by then,” Vincent said. “Which means they won’t be able to do it and which means we’ll be headed to court. Nobody denies that.”