Methane Madness 

Gov. Martz insists that Canada assess the environmental impacts of coal bed methane drilling north of Glacier National Park. So why is she giving a pass to the same industry in her own backyard?

On Tuesday, Aug. 10, Denny Rehberg joined the rest of Montana’s congressional delegation and Gov. Judy Martz in opposing the unregulated development of coal bed methane (CBM) in British Columbia. At issue on the state’s northern border is the effect a handful of exploratory wells could have on water quality directly upstream from Glacier National Park and the Koocanusa Reservoir.

Meanwhile, across the state’s southern border, Wyoming is preparing for the development of more than 51,000 natural gas wells in the basins of the Powder and Tongue rivers, which flow directly north into Montana, where they are responsible for irrigating hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland before joining the Yellowstone River. For many of the farmers and ranchers in the eastern part of the state whose lives hang on the quality and quantity of water in the rivers and in the ground, the state’s position has struck a deep chord of hypocrisy.

“Research before permitting, that’s all we’re asking for.” That’s the official line from Martz’ natural resources policy adviser, Todd O’Hair. This seemingly reasonable request from the self-proclaimed “lapdog of industry” and champion of extractive endeavors has surprised more than a few folks in the environmental activist community. Included in those ranks are members of the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC) who sued the state Board of Oil and Gas Conservation in May 2000 for permitting CBM drilling in the state without complying with the Montana Environmental Policy Act.

“The governor’s got her tail in a braid about Canadian companies putting water into the Flathead River, but she’s completely ignoring the problem of water coming in from Wyoming into the Tongue River and the Powder River,” says Irv Alderson, a third-generation rancher in southeastern Montana. “See, we only have two rivers down here that amount to anything, and this is a vast area without much water.”

In a landscape where there’s never been enough water, the coal bed methane industry produces too much of it. The question of how to manage CBM water has become the biggest obstacle to reconciling industry and agriculture in Montana.

Alderson manages the Tongue River Irrigation District, and he and his family run a ranch on a tributary of the Tongue called Hanging Woman Creek. Alderson is just one of the many irrigators concerned about CBM development in the Powder River Basin.

The most vocal group opposing such development is the NPRC, a conservation group with a membership composed mainly of farmers and ranchers like Alderson. The council’s list of concerns is long.

Like any industrial development, the production of CBM brings with it a number of nasty side effects, among them fragmentation of wildlife habitat through the construction of roads, pipelines and power lines; air and noise pollution from compressors; and general visual pollution. None of these impacts are negligible, but what NPRC members on the front lines are fighting for, first and foremost, is water. Ranchers and farms need it; gas producers need to get rid of it.

Methane is the primary ingredient in natural gas, and coal bed methane is methane that occurs naturally in coal seams. Currently about 8 percent of the nation’s methane supply is coal bed methane. Coal seams are often saturated with water, and water pressure keeps the gas trapped within the coal. In order to access the gas, a hole is drilled into the coal seam, a submersible pump is sent down and water is pumped out. Water pressure is thus reduced and gas is released. At the surface, the gas is sent via pipe to a gas/water separator and then compressed at a compressor station before being shipped to market.

Most of what an actual CBM well does is pump out water, and plenty of it—approximately 17,000 gallons per day, per well. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) estimates that Montana can expect development of between 10,000 and 26,000 wells over the next 10 years, in addition to Wyoming’s expected 51,000.

In other areas of the country, CBM “product” water is of such poor quality that it has to be put back in the ground. In the Powder River Basin, the water is either discharged directly into streams (no longer permitted in Wyoming), collected in often unlined ponds that allow the water to filter into the ground, or applied to the land via irrigation of crops.

Management of CBM water has become the most contentious issue surrounding CBM development, due not only to the large volumes produced, but because of its marginal quality. Many potable and livestock water wells in the region pump water from coal seams, but high concentrations of salts that are harmless in drinking water can be hazardous to soils.

Studies produced by Jim Bauder and Kristin Keith at Montana State University and Jim Wheaton of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology show that high levels of salinity and sodium concentration can have irreversible effects if applied to clay-rich soils like those in the Powder River Basin. According to their work, published by MSU, “Irrigation with water of CBM product water quality on range or crop lands should be done with great care and managed closely. With time, salts will affect plant growth. Saline conditions stunt plant growth because plants must work harder to extract water from the soil.”

This kind of talk has irrigators worried.

NPRC members Mark Fix and Roger Muggli manage the Tongue and Yellowstone Irrigation District just outside Miles City. Both men divert water from the Tongue for irrigation, and both are convinced that CBM development upstream in Wyoming and by Fidelity Exploration and Production (currently Montana’s only CBM producer) is slowly degrading the water in the Tongue, which supports 30,000 acres of irrigated cropland in Montana.

“The water going into storage pits is leaking, and the more it evaporates the worse the salt condition becomes and it leaks out,” says Muggli. “DEQ is supposed to monitor it, but I’m here to tell you they don’t. They give the oil and gas [companies] the say-so on monitoring themselves. And you can imagine how that stuff’s skewed.”

“Montana statute, the way it works, it puts a major responsibility on industry to self-report,” confirms the DEQ’s Art Compton, administrator for the planning division.

At issue is a phenomenon called “daylighting,” in which infiltration ponds leak CBM product water back into surface water. Compton says that’s not supposed to happen. “The intent is that it is not daylighting anywhere,” Compton says. “I think the companies are pretty careful.” “

But: “There’s no monitoring and no enforcement by the DEQ,” says Mark Fix. “They’re going by their models saying ‘the system is totally contained, none of these salts are going to make it to the river, blah, blah, blah.’ I’m seeing salt deposits on the beaches on the Tongue that weren’t there before.”

Last April, irrigators on the Tongue succeeded in convincing the Board of Environmental Review to set a water quality standard at Miles City, which would theoretically require the DEQ to shut down upstream polluters when the standard is exceeded, but so far, that hasn’t happened.

“I’m taking water samples, about three a month down in Miles City, and the monthly averages have exceeded the standard since April, but I’ve never gotten an answer to my letters,” says Fix. The DEQ blames high concentrations of salts at Miles City on drought and on the irrigation ditch taking water out of the river, but Fix says these factors are ongoing and irrelevant. “The standard was set at Miles City and when the levels exceed the standard, there’s a violation. It seems pretty clear to me.”

Even in good years, water is precious in the Powder River Basin, and in the midst of drought, water in the ground provides what little security is to be had. Thus, the sheer quantity of water being drawn out of the ground by CBM pumps has also gotten the attention of these ranchers. “Anybody in the scientific community can’t even fathom what the impacts are going to be on the aquifers,” says Muggli. “They’re going to short wells in the ranching community something fierce, I’m afraid. There’s no recourse for farmers on the bottom end of this thing.”

For Muggli and Fix, the obvious solution would be to put the water back in the ground. “We know from the science that we’re going to take damage on this clay soil and these crops eventually,” Muggli says. “We haven’t said they can’t develop it, but they need to put the water back.” But that isn’t as easy as it sounds. At this stage of research, few zones have been identified in the rock surrounding the coal seams that would be able to accept such large volumes of water.

While NPRC members are keeping a close eye on the Tongue, conservationists’ lawyers are taking the fight to the courtrooms.

“The main suit is one we filed with T&Y Irrigation District and the NRPC, challenging the constitutionality of coal bed methane development, as it was identified in the EIS, under the clean and healthful environment provision in the constitution,” says Jeff Barber of the Montana Environmental Information Center. “You need to show compelling state interest before permitting any more pollution. It’s also challenging it on the whole reclamation issue. The constitution requires reclamation of lands taken by the development of natural resources, and we have no real mechanism for making that happen in the EIS or elsewhere.”

An environmental impact statement on all coal bed methane development in Montana was released last summer, ending a moratorium on permitting for CBM development. For those who think the document fails to address environmental concerns, the Martz administration’s attention to the lack of meaningful data on Canada’s environment is perplexing.

“Most all of us over here in this battle don’t need the extra stress and pressure of this frackus,” says Muggli, who, along with many others concerned about CBM, has found himself reexamining his Republican allegiances. “We’ve gotten very little support from the administration. [Martz] wants to do everything right on the Flathead and says she wants to do everything right over here, too, but her opinion of right and my opinion of right are obviously two different things.”

Martz’ position on gas development may seem confusing to folks on the receiving end of the Powder and Tongue rivers coming out of Wyoming’s gas fields, but the directive from the White House is crystal clear: America needs more domestic energy production. Not just to maintain our standard of living, but to enhance our national security. President Bush has tried to establish a connection between increased energy production and national security, and that connection hangs on the idea of independence from foreign oil.

Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, in a June 2000 speech to the National Petroleum Council, said, “natural gas will be an increasingly crucial part of our energy mix. Our energy plan calls for a review of public lands restrictions with full public consultation to explore impediments to environmentally sound recovery of natural gas resources. By 2020 we’ll consume some 50 percent more natural gas than we do today. Without increasing domestic supply, the gap must be filled by foreign import.”

Though the connection has proven to be an effective scare tactic, it is tenuous at best, and President Bush’s record has done little to shore up the credibility of his motives among skeptics.

“When you look at the numbers of what the contribution is for developing gas resources, you won’t even make a dent in the volume we’re importing. I doubt you could even keep up with the growth in the demand for fossil fuels,” says Thomas Power, chair of the economics department at the University of Montana. “I don’t think that’s what’s motivating Bush. He’s just interested in supporting the energy industry he and Cheney have always been closely associated with. I think that’s the more obvious motivation here. The national security thing is a veil to cover up what’s really going on.”

You don’t have to be an economist to see that policies encouraging the growth of demand for fossil fuels are not the way to decrease dependence on foreign oil. “Anybody in the political scene seems to think that we want to become energy-independent. And that’s a joke,” says Muggli. “The quickest way to become energy-independent is to quit using so confounded much. What do we go do? We go and give guys who buy Humvees a 100-percent tax break to buy those damn things!”

Regardless of rationale, the Bush administration is charging ahead with its plan. According to a Coal Bed Methane Primer commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, Bush administration energy policy calls for “opening new lands or redefining federal lands for increased exploration, streamlining the permitting process, reducing the regulatory burden and expanding the nation’s energy related infrastructure.”

Federal and state agencies are heeding the call. The National Resource Defense Council reports that “BLM data show that the number of leases for oil, gas and coal mining on public lands increased by 51 percent between 2000 and 2003—from 2.6 million acres to more than 5 million acres.”

In Montana, 60 percent of CBM mineral leases are owned by the federal government and managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and 90 percent of those leases lie beneath private land. In effect, more than 50 percent of known CBM deposits are owned by the federal government under private land. Once a gas company acquires the mineral rights, its claim trumps that of the surface owner. Under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, the mineral estate is dominant, therefore surface owners cannot legally keep developers off their property.

The BLM administers federal mineral leases, and the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation issues drilling permits for state and private minerals. The Montana DEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency oversee air and surface water quality issues. It would seem that somewhere in this alphabet soup effective regulation might be spelled out. Yet when it comes to the most divisive issue—water quality—the gas companies are pretty much in charge of monitoring themselves.

Mike Caskey, for one, is not worried about water quality. The president of Fidelity Exploration and Production says the product water coming from his pumping stations is good, and that it’s beneficial to agricultural producers in eastern Montana.

“We helped save ranches because of the utilization of the minerals and the development that’s been done and the efficiencies that have been brought by utilization of the waters for their cattle ranching purposes,” says Caskey. “It’s good drinking water, and we are supplying water to some ranchers, and they’re tickled to death just to have that water.” And according to Caskey, CBM product water is not only a boon, it’s a bountiful one.

Studies by John Wheaton of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology explain the difficulty of predicting how long it might take for aquifers beneath the Powder River Basin to recover from the development being proposed. Numbers range from three years to thousands. Caskey, however, is optimistic.

“The coals will recharge very rapidly, but the obstructionist people—even though they know there is truthful science out there—they elect to ignore it,” Caskey says. “When they look at it, what they do is they look at the glass as being half empty instead of being half full. My comment is that there’s half the water there. That’s plenty.”

Putting CBM product water back in the ground may not be the panacea some irrigators hope for, but the option has been successfully exercised elsewhere. Still, Caskey is reluctant to consider it: “Reinjecting the water would be our last choice because we think the resource should be used to supplement low flows in the river for the very irrigators that are trying to obstruct this activity. We think it would be a severe environmental waste to re-inject it.”

Caskey is confident his company is doing business the right way, and that in 20 to 30 years, when the gas is gone, there will remain hardly a footprint on the land. But it’s hard to ignore the impact that money and the current regulatory climate have on this view of the future. In a sworn deposition given in a 2002 lawsuit filed by the NPRC against Fidelity, company V.P. Bruce Williams reported a cost to the company of 60 cents to deliver a thousand cubic feet of methane gas to market. With current natural gas prices approaching $6 per thousand cubic feet, it’s apparent that the business of CBM is good. State governments want a piece of the pie.

While the federal government looks more deeply into its own interior for our energy addiction’s next fix, Montana’s state government is looking for a financial shot in the arm.

“The bonanza that’s associated with it that leads state and local governments to be interested in it is that you can tax the production and the wells and the pipelines and the equipment,” says UM’s Power. “So the governments have far greater interest in it than the local citizenry does, for the simple reason that the government is really an equity partner in the development of the whole thing.”

In addition to the promise of revitalizing tax revenues, coal bed methane development has also been advertised with the promise of new jobs. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that Montanans will see an employment boom. “The employment and income component of this industry is negligible.” Power says. “You can have massive development with just a few hundred local employees. Most of the labor force that does the drilling, as with all oil and gas, is a mobile workforce that moves around the nation. Once the wells are in and operating you need a very small residential workforce to maintain compressors and pipelines and pumps.”

In the short term, state governments see a rare opportunity to pad the coffers without raising taxes, but the legacy of such shortsightedness is evident in the leftovers of past extractive endeavors.

“That’s why we have so many abandoned mines that are bleeding acid mine effluent into blue-ribbon trout streams,” says Power. “It’s a century of government neglect. The people that are given the legal responsibility of protecting the environment, enforcing the laws, have a financial incentive not to do it. So it’s a straightforward conflict of interest and the results are not pretty.”

“We make sure to the best of our ability we maintain the security of the country and keep homes warm,” says Fidelity’s Caskey, who raises valid points about the reality of the nation’s demand for energy. “The most efficient BTU [British thermal unit] source right now is natural gas. The general public has a standard of living [such] that they take fossil fuels for granted. I think the weening process [from fossil fuels] will be very painful. Would you rather have the BTUs come from coal? Any time we generate power, no matter what it comes from—even the least impacting source—you still have an impact.”

Natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel, and if mined correctly it does have a smaller surface footprint than other extractive industries. And while environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts mobilize to protect the pristine nature of places like the Canadian Rockies and Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, where feds hold mineral leases, Caskey poses an interesting question: “How do you get to where you go backpacking? If you have a Patagonia tent, and a backpack, those things are made from oil. How do you ride your bike without rubber tires?”

There is plenty of evidence that the development of coal bed methane will have far-reaching and as-yet-unquantified impacts to the wild character and essential livelihood of the state. Opponents have never wanted to stop the industry all together, but more than a few are asking if it’s worth the cost, when even generous estimates expect to find no more than a year’s worth of natural gas—at the nation’s current rate of consumption—in the region. And if there’s so much at stake, what does Montana stand to gain?

Perhaps what’s most striking about the debate over whether the Tongue River is being affected by industry is that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has copious quantities of data going back 40 years from numerous monitoring sites all along the Tongue. Yet no one has attempted to shape that data into a coherent baseline reference point—the kind Martz insists on in Canada.

“The USGS is considered an unbiased scientific agency that can work in an arena where there are conflicting ideas,” says David Nimick, a USGS hydrologist. “No one in our office has done a trend analysis or examined historical data. We haven’t been asked to do it.”

“Early on in this battle, what it was about [was that] the science was going to prevail. Now it’s the governor’s word,” says Roger Muggli. “The science says ‘yes, you are going to take damage to irrigated cropland,’ and now we’re trying to justify doing that damage, so they’re not looking so close at the science. They’re mixing the political scene in there that says ‘we want the economic development to continue more than the development of agricultural production in eastern Montana, so we’re going to gamble with that. We’re going to Russian roulette this system for a while and we’ll see how it works.’” As the Independent went to press Wednesday morning, the Northern Plains Resource Council and Fidelity Exploration and Production Company announced a settlement agreement that both parties expect to lead to “better water-quality monitoring on the Tongue River and cessation of wastewater discharges to several ponds.” Fidelity agreed to fund a five-year water-quality monitoring project on the Tongue and reimburse NPRC for a portion of that organization’s legal fees from a previous Clean Water Act lawsuit. In exchange, NPRC agreed to withdraw a recently filed 60-day notice of intent to sue Fidelity under the same act.

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