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Coal-bed methane ignites a hot debate

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WASHINGTON — A new energy boom from coal-bed methane gas could be headed for Utah. Depending on who one believes, it may help solve natural gas shortages and spur local growth — or create environmental mayhem.

Both sides were argued Thursday at a hearing before the House Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

About one-fifth of the nation's estimated coal-bed methane lies in coal fields that are at least partially in Utah, testified Gene Whitney, supervisory geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. Little of it has yet to be developed, while coal-bed methane production has boomed recently in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.

In some coal fields, natural gas molecules adhere to micro-cracks in coal seams and are released when the groundwater in the coal is pumped out. Until recently, it was considered more of a hazard than an energy source because it could lead to mine fires.

Coal-bed methane is now estimated to account for 8 percent of all natural gas reserves and 7 percent of current production, Whitney said.

Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, chairman of the full Resources Committee, issued a statement saying that as demand for natural gas skyrockets — in part because it fuels most new electricity plants — coal-bed methane will become more important to keep natural gas prices low for heating homes.

"Extracting natural gas from coal-bed methane is a critical step in meeting our demand and keeping prices low," Hansen said.

He added, "Right now, there are promising discoveries in the Uinta Basin in Utah and several basins in Wyoming. Exploring the implications and challenges of coal-bed methane resource development is a key component of our national energy policy."

Technology advances — and federal tax credits that made production affordable — led coal-bed methane production increase from virtually zero in 1982 to nearly 1.7 trillion cubic feet in 2000, or about 7.5 percent of all domestic natural gas production.

That has brought booms to such places as the San Juan Basin in New Mexico and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. It also has brought controversy.

Walter R. Merschat, with Scientific Geochemical Services of Casper, Wyo., said problems include quickly draining (and wasting) groundwater in coal fields that ranchers and residents had long used for their water sources. "It will take 50 to 150 years to recharge the aquifers," he said.

He added that lowering groundwater in coal exposes it to oxygen, making coal fires more likely. Also, he said it may lead to methane seepage and venting that may contaminate other groundwater or lead to explosive accumulations on the surface including in residential areas.

Josh Joswick, a county commissioner in La Plata County, Colo., said a quick coal-bed methane boom there led to county roads "being blown apart by heavy truck traffic . . . . Drinking water aquifers were being contaminated and depleted. There were vegetation die-offs because of gas seeps."

However, energy companies said coal-bed methane can be extracted in ways to solve such problems.

Tom Fulton, deputy assistant secretary of Interior for land and minerals management said the Bush administration views coal-bed methane as a domestic energy resource with tremendous potential.

E-MAIL: lee@desnews.com