An ongoing study into the possible effects of coalbed methane production in the Sand Wash Basin now shows the area has deep faults potentially connecting coal seams and near-surface water reservoirs.
This would mean activity in those coal seams could affect water resources used by local residents.
Some Colorado residents have alleged that coalbed methane production — which involves companies trying to harvest methane gas inside underground coal seams by removing water from the area — can lower water levels in historic wells and streams and possibly contaminate water sources with harmful substances.
Officials from the Colorado Geological Survey are completing the study, which is slated to cost about $121,000. Moffat County contributed $1,500, Routt County $500 and state water groups funded the rest.
Researchers said they are done mapping the methane and water resources of the basin, and next plan to build an analytical model that will help evaluate what impacts may arise in the future from coalbed methane production.
Geological Survey officials said local residents should not jump to the conclusion that harvesting coalbed methane will harm Northwest Colorado water resources or private property.
The presence of faults “doesn’t mean there is going to be contamination,” said Matthew Sares, Geological Survey deputy director. “It just means there are possibilities for complications, and there needs to be a thorough examination.”
Peter Barkmann, managing hydrogeologist for the Geological Survey, said companies may have to do additional research before starting coalbed methane production in the Sand Wash Basin.
“I think, if anything, the complexity of the basin tells me there’s going to have to be a pretty careful examination done before a company attempts to produce coalbed methane,” Barkmann said.
Jeff Comstock, Moffat County Natural Resources Department director, said coalbed methane production has only happened on a small scale in Moffat County to this point.
The last major effort was within the last three years by Michigan-based Pioneer Resources on land outside Lay, Comstock said. Before that, ConocoPhillips looked at coalbed methane in 2000 in the northeast corner of the county.
Neither company, nor the industry as a whole, seems enthusiastic about investing more money into coalbed methane in Moffat County, Comstock said, mostly because of technologic and economic limitations.
Although local production appears limited for the time being, Comstock added that he’s happy the Moffat County Commission decided to help fund the study.
“The take home point for me is it’s really the county trying to proactively deal with possible issues between coalbed methane and water users,” he said. “The rest of the state has tried to deal with it after problems come up.”