Risking fresh water for energy

SUN JOURNAL

Methane: Potential profit from harvesting natural gas has created an emerging industry, but the environmental side effects could be a tough price to pay.

April 10, 2001|By Judy Pasternak | Judy Pasternak,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DURANGO, Colo. - Strange things are happening to the water supplies here in the San Juan Basin.

Carl Weston noticed sugar foaming on homemade lemonade; he lit a match, held it close and watched the flame flare high. The water bubbled in Mentor Goehring's well; the pines and cottonwoods died near his log cabin. At Ron and Mac Burkett's ranch, an artesian well dried up after generations of gushing 1,000 gallons every minute.

They all think they know why. This slice of southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico is the hub of an emerging industry that harvests natural gas from waterlogged underground coal beds. Energy companies pump the ground water out, reducing the pressure that trapped methane vapors in the coal. Then rigs extract the liberated gas.

From the Rockies to the Appalachians, America's coal beds contain so much methane that recovering just 15 percent would yield a trillion-dollar bonanza, enough to meet the entire country's natural gas needs for more than 11 years. Coal beds provide at least 6 percent of the nation's natural gas, and geologists predict that could double as fields are developed.

But moving all that water may exact a price. As coal-bed development spreads, complaints have surfaced in at least four states of apparent side effects: Methane jets spurting above the ground. Fire smoldering below. Salty coal-bed water dumped in rivers. Toxic hydrogen sulfide leaking into streams.

Coal-bed methane has created some new twists in tensions over tapping the nation's energy sources.

It offers far more potential than Arctic oil - and burns cleaner - but its perceived risks are posed not on isolated tundra but in populated areas. And Western ranchers, seldom aligned with green activists, have been among the first and loudest to complain about the effect of drilling.

At stake are two basic but competing needs: abundant energy and fresh water.

Policies on the table in Congress, placed at industry's urging, favor ramping up. Environmental groups urge slowing down.

Senate proposals include a tax credit that some producers say they do not need and an environmental exemption that is at odds with a federal court decision.

Among the winners if both pass: Dominion Resources, which poured more than $907,000 into both parties in the past election cycle, and Halliburton Inc., the energy services conglomerate run by Dick Cheney until he resigned last summer to run for vice president.

"What we have is a blind rush forward," said Travis Stills, staff attorney for the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, an environmental advocacy group. "We don't want to stop the drilling altogether, but take a look at what the impacts are and proceed cautiously."

In southwest Virginia, more than 100 residents in Buchanan County have filed complaints alleging that the 1,500 coal-bed sites there have fouled or dried up their water wells.

In Wyoming, some ranchers contend that dumping high-sodium coal-bed water into the Powder River has hampered their ability to irrigate alfalfa and hay, which their cattle need to survive.

The industry emphasizes there is no proof that coal-bed development damages nearby water. Yet even experts who are fervent boosters say it's possible that coal-bed operations could cause some of the described effects.

"There is really no data," says Indiana University geologist Maria Mestalerz.

In the Senate Republicans' omnibus energy bill this year, Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, has proposed resurrecting a coal-bed tax credit that expired in 1992. The nearly $7.1 billion price tag over five years makes the revived credit a target for taxpayer groups.

Some energy companies will not defend a credit. "We can't justify it," says Don Duncan, a lobbyist for Phillips Petroleum, which is developing coal-bed methane sites in Wyoming. "Gas prices are sky high. That's incentive enough."

Dominion Resources, by contrast, is lobbying heavily for a safety net in case the bottom drops out of the natural gas market. Company spokesman Dan Donovan says a tax break would probably prompt Dominion to develop at least two more coal-bed fields.

"We've got the technology now; it's feasible," he says. "But to continue it, we need help. Let's not turn off the spigot."

Murkowski worked closely with Cheney's office to craft the GOP package. Cheney will present his own energy plan to President Bush next month and "is aware of the [coal-bed] issue," Donovan says.

While Cheney was still CEO of Halliburton, the company sought to enter a federal court battle in Alabama over a process it provides to stimulate production in coal-bed wells.

An environmental legal foundation was trying to force the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate that process, and a Halliburton attorney wrote that federal restrictions "could have significant adverse effects" on the firm's business.

The lawsuit began after an Alabama resident blamed coal-bed stimulation for long, oily strings streaming from a faucet and a strong sulfur smell in his shower.

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