The federal government wants to allow gas companies to drill nearly 40,000 new coalbed methane wells in Wyoming's Powder River Basin over the next 10 years. That many wells would quadruple the number currently in Wyoming and increase the nationwide tally by almost 70 percent.


The plan is outlined in the draft Powder River Basin Environmental Impact Statement recently released by the Bureau of Land Management. In its study, the Bureau recommends that the water from the wells be discharged untreated after it is pumped to the surface by methane-powered compressors. The agency says this process is relatively cheap and disturbs a comparatively small surface area.


Measures would be taken to mitigate damage to ground and surface water, vegetation, wildlife and aquatic species, says Paul Beels, the Bureau's project manager for the study.


Environmental groups are not impressed. Jill Morrison, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, calls the study "a huge disappointment." The group wants gas companies to reinject or treat the pumped water, phase the development of wells, drill only one coal seam at a time, and work more closely with surface owners.


The public has until April 18 to comment on the plan. The Bureau plans to release a final EIS by early August.


To view the EIS online, visit www.prb-eis.org. Paper copies are no longer available, but CDs can be requested from Paul Beels at 307/684-1100. To submit comments, write to BLM Field Office, 1425 Fort St., Buffalo, WY 82834 attn: Paul Beels.