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Coal Bed Methane Moves Forward?

The absentee President is moving forward with efforts to relax environmental standards across the country, with the latest decision likely to have a profound impact on Montana:

The Bush administration has approved a plan that could allow more than 18,000 natural gas wells to be drilled in southeastern Montana over the next two decades.

The decision by C. Stephen Allred, assistant secretary for land and minerals management at the Department of Interior, would allow companies to proceed with plans to drill on more than 1.5 million acres of federal land in Montana’s remote Powder River Basin.

There’s been a lot written about coal bed methane in the past few years, and the whole story is certainly a lot more complicated than the potential for increased revenues. The Montana Environmental Information Center offered a comprehensive look at some the environmental dangers of extraction and Steve Regele and Judd Stark from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Industrial and Energy Minerals Bureau, wrote a report that demonstrates in greater detail the p0tential environmental impact of CBM production. Both are well worth reading.

The state has demonstrated concern about coal bed methane, especially when it is being developed by our neighbors. It will be interesting to see how concerns about water pollution and impacts on agriculture will be evaluated by the state when Montana is in a position to benefit financially.

As George Ochenski notes, Montana officials have been outspoken about wanting to protect the Flathead River from the impact of this kind of drilling:

To their credit, Montanan elected officials of all political persuasions have always risen to defend the Flathead from trans-boundary pollution…
Most recently, Gov. Schweitzer and Sen. Max Baucus have rallied to the cause, using their considerable skills and power to attempt to deter our neighbors in British Columbia from trashing the North Fork. Baucus even got Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to stand up for protecting the area…

For one thing, BP doesn’t want the coal—at least not yet. They are after coalbed methane, the natural gas trapped in the coal seams that is extracted by pumping out huge amounts of groundwater to release the pressure on the gas so it can be captured, compressed and piped to market.

The state has also been critical of our neighbor to the south as well, criticizing Wyoming’s aggressive CBM development that has already impacted soil and water quality in Montana. Governor Schweitzer committed himself to protecting Montana’s soil and water quality back in 2006, a commitment he should follow through on:

Governor Schweitzer vowed to defend vigorously the state’s right to set environmental standards. Coal bed methane water needs to be treated before it is released, or reinjected into the ground in Wyoming, he said, something producers say is too expensive. He is not persuaded.

“The country needs coal bed methane,” he said. “But they can’t come in and destroy an industry, the cattle industry, that’s been in the family for 100 years. These people aren’t getting rich, they’re just making a living.”

Difficult financial times test our commitment to principles like protecting the environment. Montana needs to avoid the temptation to facilitate damaging resource extraction for short-term economic gain. The efforts of Montana’s political leadership to protect environmental quality in Montana in the face of drilling from British Columbia and Wyoming has been commendable; one just hopes that this commitment will extend to potential development inside the state.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • The Governor can talk about commitment, but how about stepping up? Two recent lawsuits against the state showed that they were not protecting water quality or quantity. Both the DEQ and the DNRC were the defending agencies.

    Then there was that recent move by the State Land Board to drill under the Yellowstone River.

    The Governor’s no environmentalists, that’s for sure. Let’s hope people eventually start paying attention.

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