Congress has taken an interest in coal seams that are considered inadequate to justify mining. Why the interest? Economic quantities of methane trapped in the seams. In September, Barbara Cubin (R-Wyoming), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, conducted a hearing on the "orderly" development of the resource, and the problems associated with methane extraction. A total of 13 witnesses testified at the hearing on all aspects of the issue and from many different perspectives. Earlier this year, Cubin introduced H.R. 1710, the Powder River Basin Resource Development Act, to address the disputes in this basin -- located in eastern Montana and Wyoming -- between coal-bed methane producers and more traditional oil and gas producers. Like the farmers and ranchers of yore, these two groups have often found themselves at loggerheads. Although the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed legislation concerning methane development last year, the full Senate did not act on the bill (S. 1950) before the 106th Congress adjourned.
Of primary concern over the development of coal-bed methane is the tremendous amount of groundwater that must be released in order to produce the gas. An additional problem is that it requires a much larger number of wells than the development of conventional natural gas reservoirs. During the early part of the 1990's most coal-bed methane was produced from the Black Warrior Basin in Alabama and the San Juan Basin in New Mexico and Colorado. During that period, there were only 100 coal-bed methane wells in the Powder River Basin. By this past May, that number had grown to over 5000. Experts estimate that development of the basin will require the drilling of 50,000 additional wells.
The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been involved in a land-use planning study concerning the impact of producing coal-bed methane resources in the Powder River Basin. Whether or not the study has delayed the permit process is open to question, but pro-development groups maintain that the BLM is proceeding too slowly in issuing drilling permits for coal-bed methane exploration in the western states. The draft Environmental Impact Study (EIS) to determine if and how development should proceed was scheduled for release by the BLM on July 1, but has not yet been issued. The final EIS is reportedly not expected until the summer of 2002, and based on recent experience, that document also may not meet the target date.
The proponents of development stress the fact that methane would not only add another resource to meet the nation's energy needs, but it burns cleaner than oil or coal. Improved technology has led to production techniques allowing more effective and efficient production of the gas. Industry and government estimates indicate that three basins -- the Powder River Basin in eastern Montana and Wyoming, the San Juan Basin in Colorado and New Mexico, and the Uinta Basin in Utah -- have the potential for producing 500 billion cubic feet of methane annually. If the resource were to be produced, the involved states and the federal government would receive several billion dollars in royalties and taxes. It appears that over 80 percent of the resource underlies private and state lands.
Opponents believe the most significant problem is the pressure within the underground aquifers that contain the trapped methane within fractured formations. The water that must be pumped to the surface in order to release the gas, tends to have very high salt content and would be produced at a rate of hundreds of gallons per minute. The water in similar formations has been found to contain arsenic, iron, barium and manganese. Concern over extraction of the water involves the potential depletion of aquifers and the drying up of wells located in those formations. Saline water discharged on the ground surface can destroy crops, accelerate erosion, and negatively affect habitat and wildlife. Some believe the removal of large quantities of water will result in ground surface collapse. Some are worried that the released methane may migrate into the water wells of private citizens, and they suggest the even greater danger of methane entering people's homes.
There is a plan currently under consideration for Congress' General Accounting Office to assess the environmental impact of drilling for coal-bed methane. The focus would be on the effect production would have on fresh water supplies, and the rights o f surface landowners. The effect on private property by the withdrawal of significant amounts groundwater or considerable surface runoff are serious concerns.
President Bush's national energy policy endorses the development of coal-bed methane as an integral part of the nation's energy supply. Recognizing the cumbersome process that exists for approving methane well applications, the administration has plans in progress to ease the approval process -- an important step needed to accommodate the significant increase in applications expected throughout the nation. Increased activities are anticipated in the states of Alabama, Colorado, Kentucky, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia. Although the administration can remove some regulatory obstacles to development, the major policy change will require congressional approval. Neither the House nor the Senate versions of comprehensive energy legislation address coal-bed methane directly, and it remains an open question whether Congress will take additional action on this subject before it adjourns.
This column is a bimonthly feature written by John J. Dragonetti, CPG-02779,
who is Senior Advisor to the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs
Program. The complete text of the energy report is available at the White House
website, http://www.whitehouse.gov/energy/. Additional information on
the energy report and current energy issues in Congress is available at the
Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.
Contributed by John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs.
Posted May 13, 2002
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