Coal Bed Methane

Coal bed methane gas can be found wherever coal is found.  The methane is held on the surface of the coal by water pressure. To release the methane, developers drill down to coal seam aquifers, and the water is pumped to the surface. This lowers the water table and releases methane gas. The methane then rises and is collected and piped to compressor stations, where it is compressed and shipped to market.

At the end of the 1990s ,coal bed methane drilling came to Montana, and the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation began issuing permits without requiring any environmental studies. In 2000, Northern Plains was forced to sue the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation to get the state to conduct environmental studies before granting new permits for coal bed methane drilling.

Salty Water Discharges

CBM Damage 043

Soil collapse from coal bed methane water appears on a field in the Tongue River Valley

Unchecked development of methane brings substantial risks to Montana’s agricultural economy. The billions of gallons of water drawn out of our aquifers for methane extraction are generally suitable for drinking and watering livestock, but are consistently unsafe for crops and soils in Montana due to high levels of sodium and other salts.

Irrigators who have relied on river water for generations now risked ruining their crops because sodium-laced water can destroy soil structure, rendering it sterile and inhospitable for plant life. In 2003, Northern Plains members began pressing the state of Montana to adopt numeric water quality standards for streams affected by coal bed methane discharges. Standards were adopted in 2006, but with key exceptions for methane companies. Those standards were attacked in court multiple times by the methane industry but the standards, as well as the science behind them, were always upheld. Eventually, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that dumping untreated water from methane wells was flatly illegal.

Surface Impacts

Roads to coal bed methane wells in the Powder River Basin cut across the landscape.

Roads to coal bed methane wells in the Powder River Basin cut across the landscape.

The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Montana coal bed methane development – which was conducted because of Northern Plains’ 2000 lawsuit, predicted:

  • 9,000 miles of new roads;
  • 28,000 miles of new power lines and pipeline corridors;
  • 4,000 high sodium wastewater impoundments;
  • 70,000 acres of disturbed land;
  • Up to 4.7 million acres of impacted wildlife habitat;
  • 600-foot aquifer drawdown across the Powder River Basin, with recharge not expected until several decades after drilling ends.
  • The EIS estimated as many as 26,000 wells will be drilled in Montana’s portion of the Powder River Basin over a twenty-year period.  Because of Northern Plains’ work to ensure drillers do it right, there are only 1,000 active wells to date.

Split Estate Problems

More than half of the methane in Montana is owned by the federal government, and the majority of the federal methane underlies private property. The mineral rights supersede the surface rights, and as a result landowners who don’t own their minerals are powerless to stop development.  Many are left with decades of industrial development on their land, accompanied by depleted aquifers, damage to the land surface, and operational difficulties like noxious weeds and bisected pastures, etc.

Depleted Aquifers

The high-volume discharges of groundwater also deplete precious aquifers that feed seeps and springs. These seeps and springs are crucial for watering livestock, in addition to providing water for wildlife. There is no guarantee that these aquifers will recharge.  From recent monitoring in southeastern Montana, we are seeing permanent drawdowns to certain aquifers.

A study Northern Plains commissioned on coal bed methane’s impacts to aquifers was peer-reviewed and published in the March 2009 Journal of Hydrology (“Groundwater management and coal bed methane development in the Powder River Basin of Montana,” Tom Myers, Ph.D., Journal of Hydrology, March 2009). The model developed in the study verified the existing conditions in the aquifers and predicted that aquifer drawdown could exceed 290 feet in the middle of the methane fields with nearly 20-foot drawdowns extending 46 miles from the methane fields. Groundwater depletion will affect river flows in the region by depleting groundwater discharge and natural recharge of the rivers. The drawdown will also affect hundreds of wells and natural springs, important sources of domestic and stock water for residents of this area, as well as wildlife. After methane development ceases, recovery of the aquifers will take up to 50 years, and as long as 200 years for full recovery.

Protecting Water Rights

We fought a battle over water rights and the threat of privatizing groundwater. In an attempt to evade Montana’s water quality standards, a methane company applied for water right permits for their coal bed methane discharge water, which would have allowed them to transport and sell some of this water out-of-state. Had they succeeded, it would have upended the legal concepts – prior appropriation and beneficial use – that have governed water rights in the West for well over a century. The legal principle advanced by the industry has been that the water in their pipelines originated in the pipes rather than in the aquifer.

It all began in 2006 when Northern Plains challenged a petition to the state of Montana by Fidelity, which sought to acquire water rights to more than 6,800 acre-feet of water annually (including a proposal to market 3,000 acre-feet per year out of state).

Approving the petition would serve to undermine the principles of beneficial use and prior appropriation. It would also inoculate the industry from liability for damages they cause by dewatering aquifers which are used by water rights holders.

In 2007, Northern Plains gained a partial victory in our administrative challenge to Fidelity’s water rights application when a hearings examiner for DNRC (1) forbade the out-of-state marketing of methane discharge waters, and (2) ruled that any water right associated with methane development ended when the development itself ended.

However, he did grant Fidelity a water right to market water, as long as it didn’t leave the state. This would still usurp senior water rights holders whose wells would be impacted by methane drilling, effectively taking away their legal rights to defend their water right in court. Northern Plains filed a legal challenge to Fidelity’s water right in state court.

In 2008, we won our state court case to protect water rights from Fidelity’s attempts to secure water rights without having a legitimate beneficial use for that water. The state district court decision overruled the DNRC’s 2007 awarding of the water right.

In 2009’s legislative session, two bills were introduced that aimed to overturn the state court decision on water rights, One of those bills was killed in committee. The second was passed by the Legislature, but was vetoed by Governor Schweitzer.

However, Northern Plains anticipates additional attacks on water rights law by an industry that will remove increasing amounts of water from our aquifers in the years ahead.

Doing It Right

Northern Plains has taken the lead in ensuring coal bed methane is developed responsibly in Montana. Drawing on the insights of scientific and technical experts, along with farmers, ranchers, sportsmen, and other concerned citizens, Northern Plains developed a groundbreaking report – Doing It Right: A Blueprint for Responsible Coal Bed Methane Development in Montana. Northern Plains ongoing Doing It Right campaign builds this report, holding the coal bed methane industry accountable and educating the public.

Our Doing It Right campaign aims to protect our water quality, family-sized farms and ranches, wildlife resources, and local communities from irresponsible coal bed methane development. This campaign intends to realize the following goals:

  • Enforcement of existing laws and monitoring of coal bed methane development.
  • A requirement than methane operators get permission from surface owners before beginning drilling operations; surface use agreements so that landowners can have a say in the course of development on their land, and reimbursement of attorney fees to landowners who prove damages to their property so that the cost of litigating doesn’t deter them from seeking just compensation.
  • The use of best available technologies such as aquifer recharge, clustered development, and mufflers for compressor stations to reduce the footprint of methane development on our productive agricultural land, rural communities, water resources, and wildlife.
  • The collection of thorough fish, wildlife, and plant inventories before development proceeds, followed by phased-in development over time to diffuse impacts and allow public agencies with the time to address problems as they come up.
  • Meaningful public involvement in the decision-making process; public agencies need to make every effort to include the public in the decision-making process.
  • Full reclamation and adequate bonding in order to protect Montana taxpayers from liability for cleanup costs after the methane industry is gone.
  • Unfortunately, we were forced to take legal action several times because state and federal enforcement of existing laws was so poor. Getting the state to conduct environmental studies was just the first. In other court cases, we:
  • Prevented the federal Bureau of Land Management from taking shortcuts on its EIS;
  • Ensured that citizens have the right to appeal DEQ decisions on permits;
  • Established that discharge water from methane wells is indeed a pollutant under the federal Clean Water Act, that such discharges must have a discharge permit, and that the state cannot create exemptions to the Clean Water Act;
  • Required a methane driller to remove several illegal impoundments and get permits for the remaining impoundments;
  • Intervened to help the Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s case against the dumping of untreated discharge water, which the Tribe won unanimously in the Montana Supreme Court;
  • Intervened to defend the water quality standards that our rulemaking petition several years earlier had established. Those standards, and the science behind them, have been upheld in every court decision;
  • Outlawed the water-wasting practice of using evaporation pits to get rid of discharge water;
  • Established under the law that water which comes out of the ground is indeed ground water. This ruling protects the right of senior water rights holders to object to a methane company’s application for water rights, and upholds the principles of prior appropriation and beneficial use that are fundamental to Western water law.

For more information

Doing It Right: A Blueprint for Responsible Coal Bed Methane Development in Montana

220 South 27th Street, Suite A
Billings, Montana 59101
(406) 248-1154