Last September, West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise laid out the welcome mat for coalbed methane producers. At the Conference on Natural Gas from Coal Seams in the Northern Appalachian Basin, the governor boasted of his state’s “extremely cooperative” permitting process and encouraged producers to set up shop.
A recent U.S. Geological Survey study predicted coalbed methane production in Appalachian states could easily double in the next few years. There are currently about 2,000 coalbed methane wells in Virginia, according to the USGS. Soon, West Virginia and nearby states may also see a significant increase in methane production, and Governor Wise wanted the producers to know West Virginia was ready and willing.
Surrounding states, reeling from ongoing budget problems and desperate for new revenue sources, are likely to be just as welcoming. As the region braces for another influx of coal-related industry, its citizens must decide if this is a good thing.
Proponents of coalbed methane production call it a win-win situation. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, and extracting the greenhouse gas for fuel keeps it from escaping into the atmosphere during regular coal mining.
But the process has serious environmental drawbacks. Methane becomes absorbed in coal beds because of pressure from water that often permeates the seams. To draw the methane out, that water must first be pumped to reduce the pressure.
In Western states, where coalbed methane production is far more common, farmers and environmentalists have witnessed the environmental consequences of disposing of huge amounts of contaminated water—which often contains salt, arsenic, iron, barium and manganese. These consequences convinced the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in April that the contaminated water is “industrial waste” as designated by the Clean Water Act and must be handled as such.
At each coalbed methane production site, multiple wells are drilled to pump out water and, eventually, methane gas. It is not unusual for one site to pump hundreds of gallons of water every minute. The wells generally connect to a central pod, which includes a compressor that sends gas at higher pressure on to pipelines.
Homeowners complain that this process either contaminates the wells providing their drinking water with methane, or makes them run dry. Noise from the compressors is also a problem.
The public interest group Earthjustice has challenged the approval of permits by the Army Corps of Engineers for the construction of huge reservoirs to hold the polluted water. Earthjustice claims the high salinity of the reservoir water threatens rivers, streams, farms and ranches.
Clint Hurt, West Virginia’s representative on the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, said that problem has been misunderstood and overblown. In many areas, Hurt said, the water pumped from coal beds is safe enough to drink.
“In any case, state regulations that govern oil and natural gas production ensure that produced water is tested and disposed of in an appropriate and environmentally responsible manner,” he wrote in a commentary in the Charleston (WV) Gazette.
Perhaps, but residents and concerned citizens may find it hard to trust the effectiveness of those regulations and the state’s intention to fully enforce them, especially given Gov. Wise’s boast of the state’s “extremely cooperative ‘ permitting process.
“We want to work with you,” Wise said at that September meeting. “We have rewritten the book on being cooperative on permitting.”
Southeastern residents have to live with the results of too many examples of broken promises and lax enforcement, especially when it comes to the disposal of toxic or damaging wastewater.
Too many Appalachian streams run orange, for example, because of acid mine drainage. Mining exposes iron sulfide in some areas. When water flows over exposed iron sulfide, it becomes extremely acidic, killing aquatic life and increasing drinking water treatment costs. The only way to fix the problem is to treat the water at the source, a hugely expensive solution.
Coal slurry is another waste product where states have done a poor job of regulating its storage and disposal, sometimes with fatal consequences. In 1972, when a series of coal slurry dams failed up a remote West Virginia hollow, a 30-foot-high wall of water and slurry came rushing down Buffalo Creek. The accident killed 125, injured 1,000 and left 4,000 people homeless.
On Oct. 11, 2000, a Massey dam failed in Martin County, KY. More than 250 million gallons of coal sludge poured into an abandoned mine then burst tributaries of the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River. Some call it the largest environmental disaster in the Southeastern United States.
So, while states and gas companies see dollar signs based on the USGS report, residents should see warning signs.
Before this expected coalbed methane boom hits the Appalachians, state regulatory agencies should give as much thought to safely storing or disposing of the wastewater as to being “extremely cooperative.”