U.S. Department of Energy elbows in on Clean Water Act

Feds challenge Montana’s efforts to establish pollution controls for coalbed methane

  • Montana and the Federal Department of Energy are fighting over the disposal of salty coalbed methane water, shown here in a holding pond in the Powder River Basin

    Ted Wood

Ask Wyoming rancher Marge West about the salty water that’s pumped from coalbed methane wells, and the first words out of her mouth are, "Oh, my goodness." The stuff has repeatedly flooded her hayfields and left behind a bumper crop of vigorous 6-foot-tall kochia weeds that her cattle refuse to eat.

West’s ranch is in the Powder River Basin, an immense drainage straddling the Wyoming-Montana border. Coalbed methane producers pump enormous quantities of often-salty groundwater out of coal seams to release the gas; most of that water is discharged into holding ponds, streams, and dry washes. The salt can harm aquatic ecosystems and irrigated crops, and farmers and ranchers worry that the pumping will deplete the aquifers upon which they depend.

So far, most of the 24,200 active wells in the Powder River Basin are on the Wyoming side. But companies are ready to step up drilling in Montana’s half of the basin.

"We know what kind of economic benefits coalbed methane has brought to Wyoming, but we don’t want to do it the way (they) did," says Richard Opper, director of Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality. "Much of the development has been uncontrolled."

After years of ambivalence about regulating the industry, last summer, the Montana Board of Environmental Review began considering a proposal to strictly control the discharge of coalbed methane water. Montana’s producers would have to re-inject the water into the ground or remove salts and other pollutants before dumping it into streams.

But Montana’s efforts are meeting fierce opposition from Wyoming, which lies upstream in the Powder River Basin. The new rules would require the Powder and Tongue rivers, which cross the state line into Montana, to meet tough water-quality standards. Wyoming’s congressional delegates have accused Montana of "targeting" their state’s thriving coalbed methane industry.

Now, the federal Department of Energy is intervening in a process that is usually left up to state regulators and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Department spokesman John Grasser says his agency stepped into the fray "because of (the regulations’) potential effect on national energy supply." But some experts say that the DOE’s push for gas production leaves Montana facing a rigged fight.

Battling bureaucracies

The Energy Department has been quietly jockeying with the EPA’s Rocky Mountain regional office for five years over how heavily coalbed methane operations should be regulated.

In late 2000, the EPA set out to establish regional guidelines to help states deal with the new industry and enforce the Clean Water Act. It began investigating the economic feasibility of re-injecting water underground or treating it. But that process bogged down due to disagreements between the EPA and the Energy Department over treatment’s implications for drillers’ profits and production. After the EPA released a preliminary study in 2003 showing minimal costs, the two agencies reached an impasse. EPA spokeswoman Jessica Emond says the guidelines are on hold indefinitely.

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