Coal bed methane drilling uncertain in Moffat County

The study should be complete in 1 1/2 years, but that doesn't mean coal bed methane development needs to wait that long to start in Moffat County.

"Production could happen anytime," said Dave Blackstun, a geologist with the BLM.

He said four or five pilot projects already have been attempted in the county, but they all failed because too much water and not enough gas was found in the coal seams.

Coal bed methane development is a process by which methane is extracted from a coal deposit. A well is drilled into the deposit, water is pumped out, and then the methane is extracted, compressed and piped to market.

The purpose of the study is to determine what areas in Northwest Colorado have the highest probability for coal bed methane development. Blackstun called the first half of the study the geology phase. It reviewed the county's coal bed methane literature and drill bed data, identified all the coal seams with potential for coal bed methane development, and mapped them out.

The second half of the study will identify areas where methane gas could best be trapped. A ground water hydrologist will determine if well sites can be "de-watered" and if it's economical to do so.

Coal bed methane development often can involve pumping huge quantities of water out of a coal seam. In Wyoming's Powder River Basin, one of the most productive coal bed methane development areas in the nation, a BLM environmental impact study determined that if 51,000 proposed wells were drilled, 1.4 trillion gallons of water would require disposal.

Sometimes the water bi-product is good water, said Nancy Sorenson a rancher in the Powder River Basin. But other times the water is high in salt. It's still potable for humans and cattle, but it's deadly to vegetation.

About half the mineral acres under Sorenson's 3,000-acre ranch are held in a split estate.

During a slideshow Thursday at Shadow Mountain Clubhouse, Sorenson told about 25 people, many of them ranchers from the Great Divide area, a prospect for coal bed methane development in Moffat County, about her experience with coal bed methane development.

She told the group how her neighbor's hay fields had been flooded with salty water from coal bed methane wells and the hay died, along with about 200 cottonwood trees.

The ranchers now sell the cottonwoods as firewood in Casper, Wyo.

She told of other ranchers whose irrigation ditches dried up because retention ponds for coal bed methane wastewater also sucked up snowpack runoff.

Some of these issues could become pertinent in Moffat County if coal bed methane development started here.

In Moffat County, Blackstun said "a reasonable amount" of BLM mineral acreage lies under private land. But even when coal bed methane development occurs on public land, private landowners are affected, he said.

But he doesn't expect the drilling rigs to be hauled into the county any time soon.

"At this point it doesn't look like we'll be a hot coal bed methane prospect. It just isn't panning out yet," Blackstun said.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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