The Cowboy State's next boom

  • Walter Merschat, geologist, Casper, Wyoming


GILLETTE, Wyo. - Will Wyoming's arid Powder River Basin be home to cranberry bogs and alligator farms? Most people aren't taking such suggestions too seriously yet. But thanks to a boom in coal-bed methane development, the basin will soon have more water than anyone knows what to do with.

"The fact is, we're going to have more water than anyone is ever going to be able to use," says Dan Heilig of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

The 7,000 square-mile Powder River Basin resembles a pair of cupped hands. The Powder River is the crease between the two hands. The left thumb is the Bighorn Mountains in north-central Wyoming; the right thumb is the Black Hills in southwest South Dakota. In between is a classic prairie landscape, with rolling hills lying across the treeless land like a rumpled blanket. Underground are an estimated 7.8 billion to 1.3 trillion tons of coal, and tucked in the cracks are trillions of cubic feet of methane gas.

There are now about 900 methane wells in the Powder River Basin. In June, the Bureau of Land Management announced it may allow up to 5,000 more wells on federal land, and the agency is struggling to keep up with the rush of permit applications. The gas industry says there could be as many as 15,000 wells on federal, state, and private land in the next 20 years.

To get the gas, underground aquifers above the coal bed must be dewatered. At the peak of drilling, the BLM estimates up to 66 million gallons of water a day could be pumped to the surface. BLM and industry officials say the sudden abundance of water - in a region that averages only 12 inches of rain a year - will mean more water for wildlife habitat, stock ponds, irrigation, recreation and municipal use.

Critics say there can be too much of a good thing.

Walter Merschat, an independent petroleum geologist based in Casper, Wyo., calls the prospect of 15,000 wells "one of the biggest natural environmental disasters to hit Wyoming."

Rancher woes

Some ranchers agree. "You can't change a prairie ecosystem into a wetland and not expect any impacts," says Laurel McCoul, a local sheep rancher. She's also a board member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a nonprofit group fighting more methane gas wells.

In 1993, McCoul bought a 960-acre sheep ranch with what she calls "wilderness quality prairie," 22 miles south of the coal-mining town of Gillette. A year later, gas companies started drilling, and since the BLM owns mineral rights to McCoul's land, she had no way of stopping it.

McCoul currently has eight wells on her land and expects more. She can rattle off a long list of problems that have cropped up since the drilling started: cut fences, increased methane in groundwater wells, dewatered wells, flooded hayfields, surface venting of methane, and run-ins with industry employees involving the county sheriff.

But the hardest blow for McCoul has been financial. "We bought this ranch so we could ranch. That's what I wanted to do for an income," says McCoul. "I was making a pretty good income before this."

While companies are required by law to pay landowners for the damages they cause, compensation often falls short or companies are reluctant to pay, McCoul says. In the first year alone, she says, she lost $30,000. As a result, she has scaled back her sheep-ranching operations and now leases most of her land to cattle ranchers.

"Leasing out to cows is economically the least productive thing you can do with your land," she says.

Merschat, the geologist who has been doing pro bono work for the resource council, says the problems for ranchers like McCoul are just beginning. He worries that as vast amounts of gas and water are pumped out of the ground, rocks and soils underground will compact, making it impossible for the aquifers to replenish themselves. "Once an underground reservoir is damaged, that's it," he says, "Mother Nature can't heal itself."

He also questions the wisdom of creating wetland habitat in an arid land. "I'm not against habitat. But it's fake habitat. Fifteen or 20 years from now it will be gone."

Not a waste of water

Dick Stockdale of the Wyoming engineer's office disputes Merschat's doom-and-gloom forecast, saying his office has received only one complaint so far. His agency's "best educated analysis" shows there will be little, if any, long-term impacts to aquifers, says Stockdale. He also brushes off the criticisms that the plan is a waste of water.

"I'm not sure what a waste of water is," says Stockdale, pointing out that massive dewatering is often done in the coal mining industry. "It's a philosophical issue people have to come to terms with."

Stockdale says the state is powerless to tell the industry how to use the water. "We don't tell the companies how to use the water. We've encouraged them to look for beneficial uses."

Tom Doll, a senior petroleum engineer for Barrett Resources Corp., one of the largest of the 50 or more gas companies working the basin, acknowledges that landowners who don't own mineral rights are in a tough position. But the industry is willing to work with them, he says, to make the best of the situation. "There are a few people that view the water as an opportunity rather than a problem," he says.

Critics McCoul and Merschat see things differently. McCoul says that while the water is usable, the companies have not been helpful.

"It's good water," she says. "You could use it in the right place. But we can never get them to discharge it in the right place."

Merschat says coal-bed methane extraction has never been done on this large a scale, and warns that residents will be left with more questions than answers. "We don't have any idea what the hell's happening underground."

Tim Westby is a former HCN intern. He's most likely on the road between Missoula, Mont., and Salt Lake City, Utah.

You can contact ...

* The Powder River Basin Resource Council, 307/672-5809; e-mail [email protected];

* Richard Zander with the Bureau of Land Management, 307/684-1161;

* Geologist Walter Merschat, 307/266-4409.

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