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Impacts expected to be huge

Coal Bed Methane Development in Montana

The wave of Coal Bed Methane (CBM) development that hit Montana recently will have huge impacts in the years ahead. It is reminiscent of the natural resource development booms of the past. In the 1980s it was the open pit, cyanide leach, gold mining boom. In the 1970s it was coal mining in eastern Montana. Each impact left some landowners devastated with little opportunity for recovery. Other landowners profited from it. Ranchers and farmers may own the surface of their land, but they may not own the mineral rights and may be at the mercy of gas companies. The Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation accepts applications and issues drilling permits.

CBM is made by bacteria found in coal seams 300 to 800 ft. below the surface. Coal is a very porous mineral and water is always present in the pores. Methane gas is held in the coal seams through pressure exerted by the water. As wells are drilled, water is pumped up to the surface at a usual rate of 17,000 gallons per day. Methane gas is released and captured at the well head by compressors and pumped into natural gas pipelines. It is a relatively clean burning natural gas.

The large quantities of water produced by CBM drilling is very saline and contains elevated levels of fluoride, ammonia, sulfates and other elements.

The CBM recovery process requires a network of closely-spaced wellheads, access roads, drill pads, drilling units and noisy compressor stations, as well as heavy road traffic to and from well heads. Each well pad may contain up to five wells, one for each distinct coal vein. A road leads to each pad, along with a gas collection pipeline, a water disposal pipeline, truck-size compressors and a powerline. For those wells without powerlines a loud portable power generator is required. Well pumps and compressors spew nitrous oxide Drilling on every 80-acre parcel disturbs 4 acres and is an infringement on the privacy of neighbors.

Once coal beds are dewatered, gas can migrate up to the surface in any direction, not just up well bores. It is a flammable gas, odorless, colorless and tasteless, and can accumulate in basements and buildings. Gas can drain upward toward wells of adjacent owners. Neighboring landowners must drill in order not to lose the gas under their property.

The large quantities of water produced by CBM drilling is very saline and contains elevated levels of fluoride, ammonia, sulfates and other elements. The water is usually discharged into holding ponds or dumped into surface waters where dangerous levels of salts can be introduced into irrigation water. Water tables in some drilling areas have dropped as much as 200 feet, drying up adjacent wells. Soils treated with sodium water will become saline and toxic to plant growth. Water discharged into streams soon flow into fisheries and destroy them. Montana law allows water to be discharged into drainages, because it is considered a byproduct of development and legally falls under a non-beneficial use category. The best solution to the water quality and quantity problems is to re-inject it back into the ground.

In the name of jobs and the economy, there are some companies who want no controls over development of natural gas and, if allowed, ignore its serious environmental and economic impacts. In Montana most of the drilling has been done by Fidelity Exploration and Development on 10,000 acres of federal, state and fee mineral land in the Powder River Basin near Decker. Northern Plains Resource Council filed a suit against Montana State Department of Natural Resources & Conservation, Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, for the failure to meet Montana's Environmental Protection Act guidelines. As a result of a subsequent court settlement, there is now a moratorium on CBM drilling until the summer of 2002, but private companies can still drill 200 exploratory wells and Fidelity can drill 325 wells on its leases near Decker.

Now there is a focus on drilling in the area between Bozeman and Livingston. J.M. Huber Corp. of New Jersey applied on July, 2001 for a drilling permit near Bozeman Pass on leased mineral lands within a scattered residential community. An outraged cry went up from the residents and J.M. Huber withdrew its permit application in September. The corporation reapplied on October 29 for a conditional use permit to drill a hole 400 ft. deep for CBM pumping inside the boundaries of Bridger Canyon Planning and Zoning District. On December 13th the BCP&Z Commission, made up of the three Gallatin County Commissioners, the County Treasurer and the Clerk and Recorder, will hear the Bridger Canyon Property Owners Association's request for a ban on drilling within their boundaries. Then, on January 10th, the BCP&Z Commission will hear J.M. Huber's request for a permit.

As of this time, there are six CBM companies working in Montana and they have applied for all of the 200 permits available to them, while the State of Montana is expected to finish its CBM Environmental Impact Statement in July, 2002. Montana River Action will be involved in these proceedings. ~

Also see: Coal Bed Methane Defeated At Bozeman Pass

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