What will Methane Cost?

FWP aims to learn how the growing coal-bed methane extraction industry will affect southeastern Montana’s fish and wildlife. By Bruce Auchly

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
November–December 2006

Beneath the dry landscape of southeastern Montana sit layers of methane so pure and accessible that the natural gas could be piped right out of the ground and into your home furnace. Extracting this methane could mean up to 40,000 wells and more than 6,000 miles of roads during the next 10 years, affecting as much as five million acres of wildlife habitat and hundreds of miles of fish habitat. Understandable, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) has some concerns.

The agency has come out in favor of a go-slow approach to new coal-bed methane development to safeguard the wildlife, aquatic, and recreational resources of the state.

“ From FWP’s perspective, a phased-in approach is critical to a well-balanced, sustainable approach to coal-bed methane development,” says FWP director Jeff Hagener.

The gas industry wants to proceed at a faster pace, while working to create a “minimum impact,” an industry executive says.

“ The last thing we want to do is damage the environment,” says G. Bruce Williams, vice-president of Fidelity Exploration and Production Company. “We live here. We hunt. We fish.”

Part of the growing concern over coal-bed methane extraction centers on the large aquifers that hold methane in underground coal seams. Getting methane to the surface requires pumping millions of gallons of often saline water, separating methane from the water, and then piping the methane to market. Irrigators along the Tongue and Power rivers are worried about the salinity of the water that must be pumped out. Ranchers who don’t own the mineral rights under their land dread the disruption that gas wells and pipelines may bring to their operations.

FWP has its own apprehensions. “We’re concerned about water quantity, water quality, and surface disturbance impacts on terrestrial wildlife,” says Don Skaar, FWP water pollution biologist.

As FWP’s point man, Skaar translates the arcane language of water chemistry for department policymakers. Skaar is in FWP’s Fishery Division; staff from the Parks, Wildlife and Enforcement divisions are also voicing their concerns in interagency meetings.

Drilling for minerals under federal control, whether on private or public land, requires a federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) permit. The BLM controls roughly 50 percent of the mineral rights in southeastern Montana. Gas wells where the minerals are privately held or state owned require the approval of the state Board of Oil and Gas Conservation. Permits to discharge ground water come from the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). FWP is an advisory, not a permitting, agency.

Up To 40,000 wells
Enough methane lies beneath the coulees and ridges of southeastern Montana to support between 14,000 and 40,000 wells over the next 10 years, according to BLM estimates. Those wells would mean 6,680 miles of roads and 20,697 miles of utility corridors, affecting wildlife on 880,000 to 4.7 million acres.

“ You can’t develop natural resources without some impact,” Williams says, adding, “but the impact can be minimized.”

Currently, Fidelity is the lone methane gas company operating in Montana. The Denver, Colorado-based company operates 233 wells in Montana, all on private land. A lawsuit has put a moratorium on developing any new wells until BLM and state officials finish an environmental impact statement, due for completion this summer.

Pulling methane from underground is relatively simple. First, a water well is drilled into an underground coal seam. (Most of the methane is within the coal, held there by water pressure.) Next, the water is pumped out. Removing the water pressure allows the gas to travel through fractures in the coal seam and migrate up the well casing.

Each Fidelity well, on average, pumps out 15 gallons of water a minute when new, Williams says. After a year, the average output drops to nine gallons a minute, and those wells approaching two years old pump seven gallons a minute. By way of comparison, water comes out of a garden hose at a house in Great Falls at five to 10 gallons a minute.

Fidelity's current 233 wells are pumping a total of roughly 1,600 gallons of water a minute, Williams says. That’s 96,000 gallons every hour, or more than two million gallons each day. The city of Great Falls uses five million gallons of water on a typical winter day.

Most of Fidelity’s coal-bed methane well water, approximately 1,300 gallons per minute, goes directly into the Tongue River. Fidelity has 13 authorized discharge points over a two-mile section of the river, Williams says. The remaining water goes to a private ranch for livestock and is sprayed on roads to reduce dust.

Methane makes up about 31 percent of the energy produced in the United States, according to federal Department of Energy figures. It’s the predominate type of natural gas (the others are propane and butane) and an important part of the federal government’s energy package. Because of how methane was formed, the country’s biggest supplies are in its coal-producing regions: Appalachia, the Midwest and the West.

In prehistoric times, plants lived, died, and decomposed, eventually turning to coal. A byproduct of rotting plants, methane gas became trapped underground, bound by the pressure of aquifers. The Powder River Basin, a geological formation beneath southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming, contains an estimated 30 to 35 trillion cubic feet of methane. That’s enough natural gas to meet the needs of the United States for roughly one year. Most of the Powder River Basin gas lies underneath Wyoming, which has seen about 9,000 wells drilled in the last three years, according to the Billings Gazette.

Go slow, and cluster wells
After witnessing the coal-bed methane boom in Wyoming, FWP decided to advocate a phased-in approach to development in Montana.

That would mean lease and permit 20 to 35 percent of the potential lands and cluster the gas wells,” says department director Hagener. “Phased-in development would provide an opportunity to monitor the development and production of coal-bed methane and assess the effects on natural and cultural resources.”

The agency supports a gradual approach, Hagener says, because its biologists don’t have baseline information to determine future effects of the development. “We don’t know the impacts of full-field development on fish and wildlife populations,” he says. “And we’re not going to know until after the development is actually underway.”

Depending on the details of FWP’s phased-in development proposal, gas companies may or may not support it. “Coal-bed methane will be phased in,” Williams says. “The industry has predicted that, if all went well, there would be 10,000 wells in 10 years. So if you mean, by phased in, 10,000 well over 40 years, then industry is not in favor of that.”

One reason FWP favors the go-slow approach stems from concern over southeastern Montana’s fisheries, particularly the Tongue River.

The Tongue is a classic prairie stream, alternately cutting through canyons then widening to create rich bottomlands, sheltered by a ribbon of cottonwoods. It starts in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains and then, from the Montana border, flows 207 miles north to the Yellowstone River at Miles City. The river’s first stop in Montana is the Tongue River Reservoir.

“ The fishery in the reservoir is phenomenal,” says Brad Schmitz, regional fisheries manager in Miles City. “It’s the biggest crappie fishery we have in the state. Also, the smallmouth bass fishery is very productive and our walleye is good, too. But it’s the crappie that draws people.”
On a summer holiday weekend the eight-mile-long reservoir can draw 5,000 to 6,000 people, Schmitz says.

Water from Fidelity’s methane wells is pumped into the Tongue upstream of the reservoir. Because the reservoir has a long retention time—it takes 36 days to change its volume—the potential exists for the extracted saline water to hurt aquatic life. “It will increase the concentration of salts in the reservoir,” FWP water pollution biologist Skaar says.

Most people think of salt as table salt, or sodium chloride. Water salinity, however, is measured by total dissolved solids, including several other different “salty”compounds, such as potassium, chloride, sodium sulfate, and sodium bicarbonate. Normally, potassium chloride is barely present and not a factor. Eastern Montana surface water typically contains sodium sulfate, which fish can tolerate in high levels. But underground water held in coal seams usually is also high in sodium bicarbonate, commonly known as baking soda. Although biologists know that fish cannot tolerate much sodium bicarbonate, they don’t know exactly how much sodium bicarb is too much for fish when the compound gets mixed with surface water.

“ There are no water quality standards for these salts.” Skaar says.

Using the scant science available, Skaar has proposed setting effects thresholds. That means if the amount of aquifer water pumped into the Tongue causes the river water to exceed those thresholds, then the aquifer water should be treated first to remove the chemical compounds.

The other water quality issue is sodium absorption rate (SAR). The SAR is the relative amount of sodium in water compared to the amount of calcium and magnesium. Too much sodium can degrade soil quality and hinder the ability of vegetation to take up moisture and nutrients from soil. SAR is used to determine water quality for irrigation water. Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality, not FWP, has taken the lead on this issue.

More humans
Water isn’t FWP’s only concern. A Montana methane gas boom will mean new people in a new place, and that could lead to new problems. It has in Wyoming. Though the jobs bring much-needed money and tax revenue to rural areas, they also attract workers sometimes tempted by abundant wildlife and few enforcement officers. Newcomers to southeastern Montana will find a game-rich area, and game wardens will likely find themselves very busy.

“ Concerns? Absolutely,” says Bryce Christensen, FWP Region 7 game warden captain. “There’s the chance of overusing the resources, residency problems, trespass. Anytime you get guys on summer projects, you can get problems.”

Some fear that poaching could represent an indirect result of methane gas development on wildlife. Direct effects will come from exploration, wells, and roads—collectively known to natural resources managers and surface disturbance.

“ Our biggest concerns are habitat fragmentation and increased human activity,” says John Ensign, FWP regional wildlife manager in Miles City. “Primarily (as it affects) sage grouse, then mule deer and antelope.”

Habitat fragmentation means breaking up areas where wildlife live into smaller pieces that are often uninhabitable, or so far from other habitat that animals have difficulty moving back and forth.

Human activity can disrupt sage grouse when they gather for breeding on their spring breeding grounds, or drive deer and antelope off their winter range and into areas with less food and shelter. “Deer and antelope tend to congregate,” Ensign says. “Human activity could push the animals out of those areas.”

FWP wildlife biologists are particularly concerned about potential harm to the state’s sage grouse populations. Though Montana has abundant sage grouse, states with few birds may put the species on the federal endangered species list. As a result, FWP biologists have had to increase efforts to count sage grouse when the birds court in the spring to better verify the state’s healthy grouse populations.

Human disturbance can cause sage grouse to abandon their mating grounds, called leks. How much human disturbance is too much? It’s all a matter of timing and location. FWP biologists recommend at least a quarter-mile between leks and any roads, well, or compressor stations (places where the gas from two dozen wells is collected and compressed into pipelines). Also, they recommend that humans stay away from leks from 4 a.m. until mid-morning and from about 7 p.m. until after dark.

Although the wells themselves don’t necessarily affect wildlife, overhead power lines and compressor stations are problems. Power lines next to a lek can provide a perch for raptors—not unlike a bunch of hungry kids lined up outside a fast food joint.

Far louder than a sage grouse can boomAnd compressor stations make noise—lots of noise. A compressor close to a lek will drown out the mating sound of male sage grouse. In spring, male sage grouse prance about on their leks and produce a booming sound with internal air sacs, advertising for mates. Female birds hear the booming and come running—but not if they can’t hear the males over the compressor.

With the exception of sage grouse numbers and lek locations, baseline data on wildlife in the area remains scarce. If a gas company calls FWP wanting to know where to avoid deer habitat in a certain township, biologists likely won’t be able to provide much information. Even less is known about many nongame species, such as golden eagles, burrowing owls, leopard frogs, and prairie dogs.

“ Our knowledge is pretty patchy,” Ensign says. “This is a big area, and we’re not geared up for it.”
One FWP proposal would have the gas industry fund additional studies and people. “The industry should be responsible for some of the costs that FWP will incur as a result of coal-bed methane development,” says Hagener.

Specifically, Hagener says, that would mean boosting enforcement to deal with increased human use in the area, making improvements to and adding staff at Tongue River Reservoir, and hiring two full-time biologists (one fisheries and one wildlife) to evaluate the effects of phased-in development.

Williams of Fidelity says the proposal could have merit: “If there’s a direct relationship, we would look at that. Industry could fund specific studies, do baseline data collection in conjunction with the agencies.”

FWP’s mission is to provide for the stewardship of Montana’s fish, wildlife, parks, and recreational resources, while contributing to the quality of life for present and future generations. Coal-bed methane is a good test of that stewardship, representing the challenge of balancing society’s energy needs against its needs for healthy wildlife and recreational treasures.

It’s easy to calculate a company’s net worth, a paycheck, or a monthly heating bill. It’s not so simple to put a price on fishing the Tongue River or watching male sage grouse compete on a spring lek. But FWP must translate those intangibles into cold equations in order to fulfill its mission.Bear bullet

Bruce Auchly is an FWP inforamation officer in Great Falls