Friday, April 17, 2015

Wyo. coal-bed methane: Boom, bust and hard lessons

Jill Morrison, left, and Kenny Harbaugh observe an ephemeral Powder River
Basin draw in 2006. Usually dry, yet moist enough to provide good grazing,
the draw was flooded with water from coal-bed methane gas wells.
(Photo: Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)
Today Wyoming’s coal-bed methane gas play in the Powder River Basin is a bust. Few of the 24,000 wells drilled during the heyday of the 2000s produce much gas, many sit idle and approximately 3,000 wells are left orphaned—a liability for the state to clean up," reports in the public-interest publication WyoFile.
"But in the early part of this century, the fervor surrounding coal-bed methane gas and its potential was as enormous as Powder River Basin coal itself—a trove of mineral wealth lurking just below the surface in coal formations the size of Lake Erie. Coal-bed methane was a play for both big operators and mom-and-pops. It made new millionaires among companies and landowners—not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars for local and state coffers.
"Coal-bed methane also fueled hot controversies in the realms of landowner rights, environmental stewardship, the value of water and—at every turn—state and local politics.
Coal-bed methane gas drilling concentrated mostly in Campbell, Johnson and Sheridan counties. Shown here in winter 2015 is a well just east of the Pumpkin Buttes in southern Campbell County. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)
Coal-bed methane gas drilling concentrated mostly in Campbell, Johnson and Sheridan counties. Shown here in winter 2015 is a well just east of the Pumpkin Buttes in southern Campbell County. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)
"Some blamed the development for harming domestic water wells. One rural homeowner fired shots at a compressor station in rifle range of his house out of frustration at the constant whirring noise. A fistfight nearly broke out on a tour bus in front of elected officials, including then Montana Gov. Judy Martz, who stepped in to cool tempers. One operator said he feared he would be blackballed by his colleagues for putting in a new water well for an elderly couple on the Powder River to replace one that had supposedly been bled dry.
“If a company or an individual involved in trying to help these people with this [replacement] well were named, there would be those who would perceive them as being guilty of something,” Casper geologist Jimmy Goolsby of Goolsby, Finley & Associates, told the Casper Star-Tribune in December 2003.
"For a time, coal-bed methane was responsible for making the Powder River Basin the largest producing natural gas field in the state, at more than 1 billion cubic feet of gas per day. During the early 2000s, coal-bed methane was the only big gas play in the state—a godsend for a mineral revenue-dependent state that had endured a long dry spell in the 1990s.
"As did so many resource booms before it, Wyoming’s coal-bed methane gas boom burned brightly and then died, leaving a complicated legacy. And, as often is the case, it left lingering hope for a revival, as well as frustrations over lessons that still appear unlearned."
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