Wyoming weighs the price of prosperity

Methane may lift the state economy, but it could also endanger precious water.

For more than a decade, the people of rural Wyoming have held out hope that someday, prosperity would return to this sparsely populated corner of the American West.

Beset by fluctuating cattle prices and slumping markets for oil, coal, and other minerals, the Cowboy State has seen the longest peacetime expansion in US economic history only through binoculars.

But now, Wyoming may be on the cusp of something big. Trapped inside the seams of its vast underground coal deposits is a mother lode of methane gas. Not long ago, Gov. Jim Geringer proudly proclaimed, "Wyoming is open for business."

Problem is, collecting the natural gas could imperil what is perhaps the arid state's most precious resource: water. As a result, the rush to develop methane is pitting rancher against rancher, even state against state, as they weigh a much-needed revenue source against mining's environmental cost.

Thousands of coalbed methane wells already have been permitted in the dry, rolling Powder River Basin northwest of Gillette. And in coming decades, tens of thousands of additional wellheads could spring up.

The concern is that developers must first pump huge quantities of water from the ground to allow the methane to escape. With methane wells each removing 15 to 20 gallons of water per minute over a potential span of decades, the estimated loss of groundwater from the Powder River Basin could measure in the billions of gallons.

Ranchers' worries

And that has ranchers on both sides of the Wyoming-Montana border worried.

"If you don't have access to water, people couldn't live out here," says Montana rancher Clint McCrae. "What disturbs me about the hysteria over methane production is it has caused people to think only about getting rich while ignoring common sense."

Coalbed methane was first recognized as a valuable commodity in the southern Rockies 20 years ago, but only in the late 1990s did it create a buzz on the economically depressed high plains. The industry touts methane because it is easier and cheaper to extract, and it burns cleaner than coal, causing less air pollution.

But critics with the Powder River Basin Resource Council say it could taint drinking water, rivers, and the soil, in addition to running aquifers dry.

Then there is also the question of what to do with all the excess water, which is salty. One idea is to reinject the water into the ground, but geologists say it may not work. "Some reinjection operations are starting to take place, but right now I don't see that as a panacea," says Gary Beach of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.

Property rights

Throughout the West, methane extraction is further fueling property-rights conflicts. Many ranchers own surface rights on their land above ground, but energy companies own the rights to whatever lies beneath. Because those rights have primacy, companies have built roads and drilled wells inside private ranches and amid subdivisions.

"A number of operators are going out of their way to address the concerns of property owners," says John Pecor, acting mineral staff chief with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Colorado. "But those same property owners believe their land values are being negatively affected, and they claim it's harming all of the aesthetic things they are moving out here for."

Methane promoters say concerns over the future of groundwater can be addressed. "When a commodity like methane is in demand, it's important to take advantage of the opportunity," says David Miller with U.S. Energy. "If the naysayers succeed in slowing down gas development, companies may decide they don't need the hassle."

Concerns over new drilling

On the Montana side of the Powder River Basin, where most of the water pumped from the ground in Wyoming flows, growing public concern resulted in a moratorium on new drilling.

The BLM is planning to begin writing an environmental impact statement later this year. And In Wyoming, an extensive environmental review also is under way.

Indeed, caution may be the best path, say some. Especially considering that northeast Wyoming's 30 trillion to 40 trillion cubic feet of obtainable methane is only enough to meet the nation's current gas needs for 18 months.

"We're not opposed to prudent development of methane, but we think it's stupid to jeopardize the future of the entire Powder River Basin," says Alan Rolston of the Northern Plains Resource Council, which represents roughly 1,400 family farmers and ranchers. "That's short-term thinking at its worst."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.