A green light for methane development

The latest plans for drilling up to 65,000 new coalbed methane wells in the Powder River Basin could leave the landscape pockmarked by 4,000 ponds that would eventually dry up into salt-encrusted pits.

That’s the word from local environmentalists and ranchers who are facing off with a half-dozen energy corporations, state agencies and the federal government (HCN, 11/5/01: Wyoming's powder keg). They’re dismayed by the final environmental impact statements — one for Wyoming’s portion of the basin, one for Montana’s portion — released Jan. 10 by the Bureau of Land Management.

The impact statements cover federal mineral rights in the 9.5 million-acre basin, which already has about 12,500 methane wells, where mineral rights belong to the states or private interests. Each well can discharge up to 20,000 gallons of groundwater a day, and water quality varies from crystal clear to highly salty.

The “preferred alternatives” now call for storing salty water in thousands of man-made, unlined ponds. Critics say that would still allow the water to seep out, impacting drinking-water wells, streams and rivers.

BLM scientists say the key is finding the right soil type. “You want a medium texture soil where there would be some seepage — but down into the deeper aquifer,” not into streams, says BLM hydrologist Robert Mitchell.

The Final EISes are posted on BLM Web sites: www.prb-eis.org for Wyoming, www.mt.blm.gov/mcfo for Montana. Only people who commented on the draft EISes last year are allowed to “protest” the final versions. Protests can be sent until Feb. 18 to: Director of BLM, attn. Brenda Williams, Protest Coordinator, P.O. Box 66538, Washington, D.C., 20035.