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Coal Bed Methane in the Northern Plains

Driving around northern Wyoming and southeastern Montana (among many other places in the United States), visitors are likely to take note of an intricate system of small “stations” dotting the landscape. Most likely, these stations are the sites of coal bed methane (“CBM”) extraction wells. Their existence in such large numbers is something of a recent phenomenon with the majority of them having been installed after the turn of the 21st Century. As with other resource issues, it is a battle over which industry should survive (CBM extraction companies or agriculture) and how the environment should be taken into consideration.

CBM is a relatively pure form of natural gas and, as the name suggests, it is found embedded within the large veins of coal found throughout the region. The methane is trapped within the coal seams by water. Once the water is removed, the methane gas can then be extracted. Wells are dug much like those for oil or water extraction and a system is then set up to remove the water from the coal seams and then capture the released methane gas.

Wells can be placed as dense as one well per every 80 acres although some laws stipulate that only one well can be placed per section of land (every 640 acres). CBM fields with high density spacing tend to leave a mark on the landscape. An intricate road system connecting every well with its neighbor soon develops. This denudes the land of vegetation, causing the amount of wildlife and livestock that it can sustain to plummet, in turn this results in heated debate between the extractors, the ranchers, and the environmental lobby. The already threatened sage grouse species, in particular, is thought to have suffered losses in population due to the altered landscape and decreased habitat.

Beyond the issue of landscape conditions, the large volume of water that is extracted from the wells is by nature very saline and generally unsuitable for livestock consumption or land application for irrigation. It is occasionally placed in holding ponds but it is also released downstream (in this case, the Powder and Tongue River basins receive the majority of the wastewater). Agricultural operators downstream of the wells then have to deal with the wastewater. Applying it to their irrigated land has the potential to render that land unsuitable for the common crops grown in the region (a complex process, but in quick summary the salts change the attributes of the soil and cause a decline in fertility). So, while the CBM extractors benefit for short term economic gain, the agricultural industry and some of our nation’s most fertile soils remain threatened.

The debate over how to deal with the issues of CBM extraction continues within the court system and with the state agencies responsible for environmental protection. As with other natural resource issues, it is difficult to find the common ground between local agricultural producers, the environmental lobby and the corporate mineral extraction companies. With further research on the effects of CBM extraction, there is some hope that a middle ground will be found that allows all sides to come away with some benefits, either through water treatment, land reclamation, or less intrusive extraction procedures.

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