Drilling method pumps up floods of conflict

Wyoming becomes a key test for technique that releases methane gas from coal beds

Beneath the desolate beauty of Wyoming's Red Desert lie rock-bound resources that could go a long way toward meeting America's burgeoning demand for natural gas.

But the potential energy supplies are also unleashing floodwaters of controversy on the open range.

At issue is a method of releasing methane - a form of natural gas - from coal beds where it is trapped. In the process, vast quantities of water are also extracted, threatening the livelihood of many ranchers.

The battle here has implications that reach far beyond this unusual landscape. It could help determine whether drilling rigs increasingly sprout up in landscapes as diverse as New Mexican mesas, Midwest prairies, and Pennsylvania hills.

"It's going to happen around the world," predicts Walter Merschat, president of Scientific Geochemical Services in Casper, Wyo. "I think any place there's coal, there's a potential for extracting methane."

In fact, while the prospect of drilling for oil in Alaska has become a focal point of debate over President Bush's national energy strategy, his plan also seeks to encourage so-called coal-bed methane drilling in the lower 48 states. This would disturb more acres of land near more people than would drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Vast trapped resource

With or without encouragement from Washington, experts say the new drilling technique could unlock a vast resource at a time when new US power plants have increasingly relied on natural gas for fuel.

The extraction method, developed since the late 1980s, has boomed in the past few years in northeastern Wyoming's Powder River Basin, where almost 11,000 wells have been drilled during the past two years.

The Red Desert is part of the Green River Basin, a region in southwestern Wyoming that, by itself, may hold enough coal-bed methane to supply the nation with a decade's worth of natural gas - 314 trillion cubic feet.

The US Bureau of Land Management, which owns key mineral rights here, expects the region to become America's major gas-producing region by 2015. The agency plans to permit 4,000 methane wells near Rawlins, on the area's eastern edge.

But critics say the rich energy supplies come at a large cost to the land and many who live on it.

"It's going to be tragic - all the erosion, the weeds, the pipelines," says Bernie Barlow, whose family has raised cattle since 1927 in the steep hills of the Powder River Breaks. Like many ranchers, Ms. Barlow doesn't own the mineral rights underfoot.

Where coal-bed methane is developed, it introduces new miles of roads, wires, and pipelines into an empty landscape. It also generates large amounts of water.

The reason: To get methane out of the coal, drillers first pump out water that is trapped in the rock. This reduces the pressure and allows the gas to percolate out, just as popping the top on a can of soda reduces the pressure and releases the carbonation. A great deal of water in a desert is not necessarily a good thing, since it has to be disposed of and may be high in salts.

Thus, some ranchers such as Barlow face the prospect of having scores of reservoirs built on their land to hold the pumped water. Pennaco Energy, a subsidiary of USX-Marathon Group and one of the busiest drilling companies in Wyoming, wants to use 1,000 of Barlow's 18,000 acres for reservoirs. All the development, she says, will erode fragile soils and cut down on the available feed for her cattle. "In this rough country, it's going to be a catastrophe."

Not all ranchers opposed

Those ranchers who own the gas beneath their land - and thus stand to reap royalties from drilling - tend to be more positive.

"Every time you hear one of those things," said Jack Cooksley, smiling at a diesel-powered machine that compresses gas from 22 wells on his ranch near Ucross, "they're going to talk money."

Gas industry executives, for their part, contend that gas drilling will bolster national energy security.

"The country needs more good, clean energy, and right now," said Terrell Dobkins, Pennaco's vice president for production. "Natural gas is the cleanest option that we have available that's economic. We need to develop more ... where we [Americans] have full control over it."

But the process carries environmental risks. Once the gas is released from the coal bed, it can percolate to the surface rather than be captured by drilling.

In the Durango, Colo., area, several families were moved from their homes after explosive levels of methane accumulated beneath them. Trees and shrubs died. La Plata County tried to control coal-bed methane development by passing regulations to allow the county to determine where wells would be sited. The gas industry sued to overturn the regulations, but they have been largely upheld by courts.

Drilling also could mar landscapes that many people want to protect.

The Red Desert, for example, is the highest desert in North America and home to the largest migratory ungulate herd in the lower 48 states. In the spring and fall, 50,000 pronghorn antelope migrate through this region, traveling as far as 140 miles. Elk come out of the Wind River Range to winter here, and several hundred live - atypically - in the desert itself year-round. It has one of America's healthiest populations of Northern sage grouse.

Yet for all that, "we're fooling ourselves if we think we're going to stop mineral development in southwestern Wyoming," says Dan Heilig, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. He says environmentalists hope to keep methane drillers out of the most striking and sensitive parts of this landscape.

The House version of the Bush administration's energy bill, passed last summer, would revive an energy tax credit that stimulated early coal-bed methane development, but expired in 1992. Some analysts say methane drilling would boom under the credits, and flourish even without them.

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