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WY: Coalbed Methane Natural Gas Extraction Pollutes Water

The federal government and energy corporations have collaborated to perpetuate the myths of "clean" natural gas, omitting significant data that the extraction process (hydraulic fracturing, aka 'fracking') causes widespread pollution of watersheds and contaminates soils from wastewater discharges. Coalbed methane deposits in Wyoming are experiencing an extraction boom, while surface lands pay the price with dirty water.
When dealing with fossil fuels, natural gas has been frequently portrayed by the corporate media as the "lesser evil", the "cleaner fuel" and other such terms that make comparisons with coal seem far worse. However, in many cases the natural gas extraction is linked with either oil or coal deposits and comes out by use of hydraulic fracturing, ("fracking") where water containing sand is injected by force into underground coal seams to free trapped pockets of natural gas. In doing so, the wastewater resulting from the fracking process is returned polluted and often discharged into holding basins or sometimes returned directly to the streams and rivers, contributing to contamination of soils and watersheds.

As of yet the federal agencies that exist to protect the ecosystems from such abuses have stood aside and avoided performing their jobs of regulating the energy corporations that profit from the natural gas extraction process. The results are large scale pollution and soil contamination of rural lands such as Powder River Basin and southwestern Wyoming.

Summary of coal bed methane extraction from Powder River Basin Resource Council;

"Coalbed Methane Development in Wyoming's Powder River Basin is Transforming the Landscape."

"Wyoming's Powder River Basin is experiencing the largest mineral boom in Wyoming history. Coalbed methane (CBM) gas development in the Powder River Basin has been characterized by industry as the "hottest natural gas play" in North America, making CBM development the greatest environmental and cultural threat Wyoming has faced in decades. This "gold rush" style pursuit of CBM is presenting enormous challenges for urban and rural citizens, ranchers and farmers, and impacted municipalities.

Unfortunately, coalbed methane extraction has significant detrimental consequences especially at the scale of development projected for the next 15 to 20 years of 50,000 to 120,000 wells. For up to two years of the well's initial operation, water must be pumped from the targeted coal seam at rates of up to 100 gallons per minute. Discharge of this water is causing extensive erosion and cases of irreversible soil damage from high salt and sodium in the discharge water.

(See Erosion and Soil Damage Caused by Coalbed Methane Discharge Water )

Each coalbed methane well produces an average of 20 tons of salt per year. The quality of discharge water deteriorates substantially as one moves north, west and south of Gilette. Landowners need to know the discharge water quality, particularly the sodium adsorption rate (SAR) and their soil types.

Domestic and stock water wells are drying up or becoming contaminated with gas or other development-related constituents. Over 400 miles of power lines were constructed last year to serve the CBM wells and compressor stations, with over 400 miles projected for construction each year for the next 5 or 6 years. Compressor stations are often powered by jet engines whose noise shatters the solitude of rural living. Hundreds of semi-trucks and pickups driving to and from methane sites kick up clouds of dust, resulting in increased respiratory problems for livestock and humans.

The Powder River Basin Resource Council has responded by providing landowners with information on how to protect their property through surface access and damage agreements (See Help for Surface Owners) We have joined forces with other groups and landowners to oppose the damaging discharge of billions of gallons of water. EPA is now requiring additional evidence and signatures from landowners to ensure that discharges are truly beneficial Our appeal of discharge permits has halted the discharge of any new water into the Powder River drainage or the Tongue River drainage. Industry's "quick fix" solution has been to build large waste pits to store the water can lead to salt and sediment buildup, potential contamination of shallow aquifers and acreage out of production.

(See Additional Information and Concerns over Coalbed Methane Development in the Powder River Basin.)"

article found here;

The process of fracking for coalbed methane uses tremendous amounts of water that cannot be restored once used. Indigenous peoples of Wyoming also face devastation as their clean water is sought after by natural gas corporations who have enough political and financial clout to encourage the Bureau of Indian Affairs to grant permission to drill without any public review process.

Background from Wind River Alliance;

"Coalbed Methane Industry Eyes Reservation Waters"

"Throughout Wyoming and the West, communities are facing devastating impacts to their water, land and quality of life because of Coalbed Methane technology.An eight-acre wastewater pond and five test wells for coalbed methane appeared this spring in the southeastern corner of the Wind River Reservation. Devon Energy Corporation, a large oil and gas company based in Oklahoma, received permission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to dig the pond and sink the test wells, all without performing any environmental assessment of potential impacts. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is set to allow Devon, Inc. to drill 15 more test wells, still without any public disclosure of impacts to the land, waters, wildlife and people of the Wind River Reservation. And the pond and test wells are just the beginning. If Devon gets permission from the BIA and Environmental Protection Agency, 100 coalbed methane wells could be drilled in the area.

The Joint Business Council of the Arapaho and Shoshone Tribes (JBC) is wisely taking a hard look at the company's plan. In the past, the JBC has not allowed coalbed methane development because of unacceptable impacts to Tribal lands, waters, wildlife, vegetation and soils. The wisdom of the JBC's decision not to rush into this new realm of oil and gas extraction has become more evident with each passing year. Throughout Wyoming and the West, communities are facing devastating impacts to their water, land and quality of life because of this new technology.

Water Quality and Quantity Impacts Unacceptable for Wind River Reservation

Coalbed methane development is a relatively new oil and gas extraction technique that causes serious impacts to surface and ground water. Like all gas drilling, methane extraction causes numerous surface impacts including constructing miles of roads and pipelines, well pads, and compressor stations. All of these activities fragment and destroy wildlife habitat and create noise and air pollution. In addition to these impacts, coalbed methane requires the "dewatering" of coal seams to allow the gas to migrate to the surface. This dewatering process causes significant impacts in semi-arid areas like the Wind River Reservation. It is not uncommon for each coalbed methane well to pump out 15,000 gallons of groundwater per day. This volume of water depletes aquifers, lowers the water table, and causes serious erosion and increased stream sedimentation.

The quality of the by-product water is also of concern it is often high in salts, particularly sodium. The high salt content of the waste water has known negative impacts to soils, aquatic life, vegetation and surface water quality. The soils of the Wind River Reservation already are crusted white from increased alkalinity in some heavily irrigated areas. Wind River soils are highly vulnerable to further salt deposits from coalbed methane wastewater.

The waters of the Wind River Reservation are precious. The plants, wildlife and soils are the lifeblood of our communities. JBC has wisely refused coalbed methane development in the past. Today, the wisdom of that decision is even more obvious, given the demonstrated impacts of coalbed methane in Wyoming and throughout the West.

WRA will be hosting a training on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for Wind River citizens to learn how to make their voices heard. Stay tuned by regularly visiting our website."

article found here;

more background on coalbed methane extraction in Wyoming;

"You've read the bumper stickers - "Wyoming - Like no Place on Earth." And "Wyoming Wildlife - Worth the Watching." The scenery and solitude of the wildness of Wyoming is special in the hearts of residents and nonresidents alike.

Add 100,000 wellheads to a landscape that is already feeling the effects of other kinds of energy developments, and "Wyoming - Like no Place on Earth," may take on a new meaning significantly different from the one bumper sticker creators had in mind. The Powder River Basin Oil and Gas Project could be the catalyst for that change in meaning.

The project is a proposed coalbed methane development that would encompass over 7 million acres in northeastern Wyoming. Coalbed methane is a form of natural gas generated in coal seams. There has always been an interest in extracting this resource from the land, but technology prevented it from happening. Recent advances in technology are forcing Wyoming to brace for unprecedented coalbed methane production, with an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 wells drilled in the next several decades.

Development can sometimes create wildlife habitat, and in the case of this project, some aboveground improvements such as watering sites for wildlife seem possible.

But there are serious concerns, as well. Biologists believe that mule deer and their habitats can be harmed because of oil, gas and mineral exploration and extraction. An increase in mortality, ingestion of toxins, loss of habitat, barriers to migratory mule deer that move from winter to summer ranges, and disturbance that fragments and degrades habitats have the potential to affect mule deer populations.

Wyoming Game and Fish Biologist Steve Kilpatrick said oil and gas exploration in mule deer winter range may have negative indirect effects, as well as direct effects.

"The direct effects are roads and disturbance," said Kilpatrick. "Once you have those, you have fragmented the habitat. Big game can't always jump roads. Then you set yourself up for successful fire suppression operations where you can intercept fires. We can more easily control and master natural processes with roads. And we can't go into these places to do prescribed burns because of the risk. We're now limited with going in there and doing mechanical things to mimic fire, but these techniques aren't as effective because of reductions in nutrient recycling."

And there are other issues, as well. Ground water has to be removed to extract methane from coal seams. If this water is contaminated, where will it be placed? If it isn't contaminated, where will it be used? If additional water is placed above ground, it could effect a positive change by creating new wetlands. Or, it could change stream flow and the habitats of native fish. Coalbed methane projects have the potential to disturb wildlife at critical times of the year.

Coalbed methane wellheads are small, but each comes complete with its own road and utility line. No one knows the effect this project would have on sensitive wildlife such as sage grouse, a species of concern throughout the West.

Development has the potential to affect more than native fish and wildlife. Development will attract more people to Wyoming, placing additional stresses on existing resources. Construction of new power plants will place greater demands on water resources.

One of the most significant potential impacts is the visual effect on the landscape of Wyoming. Visions of breathtaking landscapes may be cluttered with the signs of energy exploration.

How do state fish and wildlife agencies respond to these challenges?

Dan Stroud, a habitat biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Pinedale, said issues concerning shrub habitats, sensitive species and development are creating a crisis in agencies throughout the West.

"We simply are not able to keep up with the extensive wildlife habitat management needs we face across our vast landscape," said Shroud.

Stroud said efforts must be focused on "larger habitat assessments coupled with management solutions," but that the direct effects of largescale landscape changes are difficult to quantity.

"We can't quantify the specific effects of coalbed methane development," said Stroud. "We don't know the effects on mule deer from a stress standpoint." As an example, he added that mule deer are living in and around towns that seemingly aren't stressed by people.

But Stroud said wildlife are affected by development.

"The direct effects of development to mule deer are habitat removal combined with the pressures of existing grazing of livestock," said Stroud. "You're reducing the forage base so there's more competition for what's left."

The BLM's Senior Wildlife Specialist Cal McCluskey believes it is important to look at oil, mineral and gas exploration on a large scale that crosses political boundaries.

"Places like Powder River basin and southwestern Wyoming are key areas, not just for Wyoming, but regionally, and nationally, because of the large mule deer winter ranges they provide," said McCluskey.

McCluskey said the BLM is developing a sagebrush biome conservation strategy to help identify key areas within the landscape throughout the sagebrush ecosystem. His agency will use that information to help influence land use allocations.

"Land use allocation is where the rubber meets the road," said McCluskey. "One of the limiting factors on past land use plans is they've been developed with blinders on, ignoring what's going on by looking at the administrative boundary the land covers. To make better decisions that have longer term value for all resources, you have to take a broader look on a larger scale, and ask how it relates to smaller pieces of land. That will help influence decisions."

Regardless of the types of decisions made, diligent, consistent long-term monitoring of mineral, oil and gas exploration sites will be necessary to truly understand the effects of this type of development on the landscape, people, and native fish and wildlife. In the meantime, Wyoming is one of many western states and provinces that has the difficult challenge of grappling with the energy needs of its citizens and nation, with the impressive landscapes that make "Wyoming - Like no Place on Earth."


Mule Deer, Changing Landscapes, Changing Perspectives, is a series of non-technical articles based on technical papers from the book, "Mule Deer Conservation: Issues and Management Strategies" Published by The Berryman Institute, Utah State University.

The contents of this web page may be photocopied or reprinted for noncommercial purposes using the citation listed below:

Mule Deer Working Group. 2003. Mule Deer: Changing landscapes, changing perspectives. Mule Deer Working Group, Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

article found here;