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Coalbed Methane Development

A Definite Maybe: Will Coalbed Methane Development Harm Montana’s Fish and Wildlife?

Jobs, royalties, tax revenues. Saline water, habitat disruption, reduced access to hunting and recreation—coalbed methane development poses some clear trade-offs along with many unknowns.

A Gas By Any Other Name

Is coalbed methane the same as natural gas? According to the Montana Coalbed Natural Gas Alliance, this is one of the most common questions people ask about coalbed methane (CBM). The answer is yes: CBM is simply natural gas that comes from underground coal seams.

To retrieve the gas, producers drill water wells into the coal deposits. As the water is drawn through the well, the decrease in water pressure also releases the methane gas. The gas rises to the surface with the water, where it’s collected and piped out for distribution. Montana Outdoors magazine likens the process to opening a can of soda pop.

The US Department of Energy projects that demand for natural gas, a clean-burning fuel, will increase 50% over the next 20 years. The Alliance says it’s “the one fuel that has the most potential for making America self-sufficient.”

CBM development offers Montana the economic potential of new jobs, increased tax revenues, royalty payments to the state, and revenue from state trust lands with CBM to benefit public schools. For the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes, whose lands are in prime CBM territory, development of this resource promises needed income. (While fighting a CBM contract signed before his election, Crow Tribal Chairman Carl Venne said, “The days of buying Manhattan for trinkets and beads are over.")

To produce CBM requires wells, access roads, utility lines, pipelines, containment ponds, generators, and compressor stations. Producers include large companies and smaller independent operations. For any producer, the decision to drill or not to drill is based on the market prices for natural gas, the availability of pipelines to get the product to market, and the costs of production – including costs to mitigate environmental damage.

CBM production can affect water quantity and quality and disturb the landscape, and it has implications for dust, fire, noise, light pollution, spread of noxious weeds, impacts on schools, housing, and other community concerns, and other issues—including the well-being of fish and wildlife populations.

Montana: Poised for Development

In Montana, the Powder River Basin in the southeast part of the state has the greatest potential for CBM development, although development may reach as far west as Gallatin and Park counties.

As an outcome of a lawsuit by the Northern Plains Resource Council, the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (MBOGC) placed a moratorium on state-permitted CBM wells in Montana until MBOGC and the Bureau of Land Management completed a final Statewide Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Oil & Gas, including CBM development in the state. The EIS was issued in January 2003, and it provides a basis for planning and permitting by any agency involved in CBM development.

The EIS lists nearly 40 permit and review processes that may be required for a CBM project to go forward. It includes a plan for collecting baseline wildlife information (that is, the status of wildlife before CBM development), monitoring CBM’s impact on wildlife information, and assessing whether measures to protect wildlife are working. “This document is the framework,” says BLM’s Roxanne Falise. “The beef will come from everyone out there … landowners, industry, conservation groups, agencies.”

There may be sites for potential CBM development on Forest Service lands, and any requests for drilling permits will require a separate Environmental Impact Statement.

In its 2003 session, the Montana state legislature is considering various laws to regulate CBM development and its environmental effects.

Taking a Pass

While most CBM development centers on the Powder River Basin, there is CBM potential in the scenic Bozeman Pass area as well. A producer’s attempt to obtain drilling permits for areas in Gallatin and Park counties was stopped when Gallatin County commissioners voted in a moratorium on drilling. “

For the first time in Montana's long history of extracting minerals and living with the residue,” wrote a columnist in the Bozeman Chronicle, “the prospectors and developers chose a resource that lies under the homes of wealthy, influential people who chose their homesites for their aesthetic qualities.” Litigation continues in this case.

Split Estate, Splitting Headache

People who own land where coalbed methane is found may own the right to the gas, or those rights may belong to the federal or state government or a private entity. Most of the surface land in southeast Montana, the state’s prime CBM area, is privately owned, while the predominant mineral owner is the federal government. The Bureau of Land Management is charged with developing this federal mineral estate, which it does by issuing drilling permits to private producers.

Ownership in which mineral rights are separated from surface rights is called “split estate,” and it can be a splitting headache for landowners faced with the prospect of CBM activity in their backyards. Although federal and state laws require producers to post bond for damages and take other such measures, mineral rights take precedence over surface rights, and surface owners are largely on their own when it comes to negotiating surface use agreements with producers.

A pamphlet from the Northern Plains Resource Council says landowners should “not sit back and wait for government agencies or energy companies to protect their rights for them: it is up to you to ensure that mineral operators respect and protect your property and your livelihood.”

“Little Fish Are Like Little Alfalfa”

Among the many possible impacts of CBM development, its effect on water has been the most publicly contentious. CBM production brings to the surface large volumes of mineralized water (CBM opponents call it wastewater, proponents call it produced water). Farmers who use water from the Powder and Tongue rivers for irrigation fear that adding saline water to these rivers will hurt their crops.

Discharging CBM water into rivers and streams may harm fisheries, depending on the tolerance of the fish (and the insects and organisms they eat) for increased salinity and changing water temperature. Some 45 fish species live in the Powder, Tongue, and Rosebud rivers. Biologists have data on saline tolerance in some of these species (the uncharitably named fathead minnow seems to be salt tolerant, for example), but many questions remain.

Billings Gazette columnist Mark Henckel summed up these concerns. “If too much salty water is dumped into the Tongue,” he wrote, “irrigators will see their lands ruined for crops. Anglers will see fish die along with the aquatic insects that those fish feed on.” Henckel quoted Art Hayes, Tongue River Water Users Association: “Little fish are like little alfalfa – they can’t stand that salinity in the water. And if you look at the number of people that use and enjoy Tongue River Reservoir, think about how many people will be impacted if that fishery dies out.”

CBM produced water also has the potential for adverse impacts on plant species of cultural significance to the tribes, such as chokecherry.

With the help of university soil scientists, farmers in the Powder River basin are urging the Montana Board of Environmental Review to set specific numeric limits on mineralized water fed into eastern Montana rivers as a result of CBM drilling. When the Board held a public meeting in Miles City in September 2002, Rosebud Creek rancher Wally McRae told them Miles City historically has been supported by three industries: the cavalry, bordellos, and agriculture. “We’re down to one out of three,” he said.

In addition to concerns about water quality, pumping water for CBM production may deplete aquifers, although using the water to recharge aquifers and augment domestic water supply is one strategy proposed for mitigation. Drawing down aquifers may reduce the flow in some streams, which could have a harmful effect on fish populations.

Two Views …

… from the Billings Gazette, August 27, 2002, in response to a federal ruling that Fidelity Exploration and Production Co. did not violate the Federal Clean Water Act when it released CBM water into Montana’s Tongue River:

  • “This is a real heart breaker,” said Mark Fix, a farmer and rancher who irrigates with Tongue River water and is chairman of Northern Plains’ Coal Bed Methane Task Force.
  • “This is really good news,” said Dan Sharpe, spokesman for Montana Dakota Utilities, which owns Fidelity.

Poles, Prey, and Poachers

Montana’s part of the Powder River Basin is home to bighorn sheep, white-tail deer, mule deer, pronghorn, and elk as well as mountain lions and some black bear. Virtually all of the area is used by mule deer, three-quarters is used by pronghorn, and both species do very well, compatibly sharing the range with livestock and supporting a significant amount of recreational use.

Biologists have a good understanding of what types of habitats these species need during different seasons. To ensure that the animals can get to the habitat they need when they need it, however, will require more information about their seasonal and migration activities. Studies indicate that ungulates will be affected not so much by the physical presence of CBM wells as they will by increased human activity and vehicle traffic.

In addition, CBM producers are reportedly discouraging landowners from allowing hunting on lands with production facilities, which may have a significant impact on access for hunting and license revenues.

Montana’s prime CBM territory is also home to a number of species that are federally protected as endangered or threatened or are ‘species of special concern,’ including the bald eagle, mountain plover, black-tail prairie dog, and sage grouse. Noise and other disturbance, road building and traffic, networks of pipelines – CBM development poses a number of threats to these protected species.

The new utility lines that will be required for CBM development illustrate the complexity of the issues. Raptors use power poles for hunting, roosting, and nesting, but a significant number of eagles and other raptors are killed by electrocution or collision with poles and lines. Make the poles safer for raptors, however, and you make it easier for them to prey on declining populations of sage grouse and black-tailed prairie dogs.

Based on experience with the galloping CBM development in Wyoming’s part of the Powder River basin, Montana can also expect more trespassing and poaching from the young transient workers who come to the area for CBM jobs. “They make more money than they know what to do with,” explained Bryce Christensen, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Warden Captain. “They have lots of spare time for recreation, many have never seen wildlife like ours, and they are opportunists.”

Comments Made …

… during a conference on CBM development in the West, organized by the National Wildlife Federation:

“Biologists generally get pulled into the question after the leases have been made. That casts us in the role of obstructionists.” – Frederick Lindzey, University of Wyoming

“We need to ask, can we improve the habitat to sustain the sage grouse that would be displaced by CBM? Can we have higher density of sage grouse? Can that be done? Has it ever been done? I’m not sure mitigation will be effective.” – Clait Braun, Grouse Inc.

“We’re bombing along, making utility poles safe for raptors to land on, and along comes the sage grouse issue.” – Sam Milodragovich, NorthWestern Energy, Butte

“I see changes [in river and stream insect populations], but we need more data to prove one way or the other if CBM did that. If I could prove that the changes are from CBM, we wouldn’t even be here.”—Bernie Smith, Science Instructor, Colstrip

“The mule deer and pronghorn are really charismatic, and I’m dealing with chubs. If you don’t think there’s enough information on mule deer, wait ‘til you get to chubs.”—Carol Endicott, Confluence Consulting, Bozeman

“CBM compressor stations make noise. A fellow Gillette-ite got so mad at his compressor, he started shooting at it.” – Mark Winland, Gillette, Wyoming

“The draft EIS said CBM development would be a ‘gradual transition away from agricultural lifestyles.’ That my lifestyle, and I’m offended by that.” – Clint McRae, rancher, Forsyth, Montana.

“It’s important to prevent polarization and make sure the limited resources for mitigation are used widely and effectively.” – Harmon Ranney, Montana Natural Gas Association, Helena.

“If ESA lists certain species, when the government says you have to protect this, it’s amazing what industry does. I used to work for them, and tremendous resources get unleashed, but that won’t be done voluntarily.” – Laurie Goodman, Trout Unlimited, Jackson, Wyoming

A CBM operator in Wyoming identified a coal seam that appeared to be an acceptable site for reinjecting produced water. “It looked like a great place to put water, so they started doing injection work, and everything went swimmingly until the water started to pooch out in unexpected places. It turns out the coal was fractured, and when you put water into fractured coal, it’ll pop up in places you didn’t expect.” – Mickey Steward, Coal Bed Methane Coordinating Coalition, Buffalo, Wyoming

The BLM wildlife monitoring plan “looks good on paper. Hopefully, it will translate on the ground.” – John Ensign, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.

Organizations Involved in CBM in Montana

  • Montana Department of Environmental Quality
  • Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation
  • Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology
  • Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks
  • Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation
  • Montana Tech of the University of Montana Groundwater Information Center
  • US Army Corps of Engineers
  • US Bureau of Land Management
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • US Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • US Environmental Protection Agency
  • Custer National Forest, US Forest Service
  • US Geological Survey
  • Crow Tribe
  • Northern Cheyenne Tribe
  • Montana Coal Bed Natural Gas Alliance
  • Montana Petroleum Association
  • Peak Analytical Services, Inc.
  • Montana Environmental Information Center
  • Northern Plains Resource Council
  • Park and Gallatin Citizens’ Alliance
  • Tongue River Water Users Association


  • “Methane drillers favored in court,” by Jennifer McKee, Billings Gazette, 8/27/02
  • Montana DEQ Coal Bed Methane Web site
  • State delays decision on coalbed water standards,” Jennifer McKee, Billings Gazette, 12/07/02
  • “Farmers ask salt limits for coalbed wells” by Ericka Schenck Smith, Billings Gazette, 3/30/02
  • “Irrigators challenge coalbed water pact,” by Clair Johnson, Billings Gazette, 12/20/01
  • “Crow leader wants to dig tribe out of debt,” by James Hagengruber, Billings Gazette, 2/28/03
  • Coal Bed Methane: A Guide to Protecting Your Property, Northern Plains Resource Council, June 2001
  • Final Statewide Oil and Gas Environmental Impact Statement and Proposed Amendment of the Powder River and Billings Resource Management Plans, Bureau of Land Management and Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, January 2003
  • “What will methane cost?” by Bruce Auchly, Montana Outdoors, March-April 2002
  • “Moratorium imposed on coalbed methane drilling,” by Scott McMillon, Bozeman Chronicle, 7/03/02.
  • “Bills point to changes in our ideology,” by Marjorie Smith, Bozeman Chronicle, 3/03.
  • Doing It Right for Wildlife and People,” conference on CBM development in the West, Billings, March 1-2, 2003, organized by the National Wildlife Federation.

This vignette was completed in March 2003.