Methane drilling seen hard on crops

Methane drilling seen hard on crops

When the soil in Roger Muggli’s fields turned bad last year, damaging more than 300 acres of alfalfa, the third-generation farmer quickly named a culprit: coal-bed methane drilling along the nearby Tongue River.

Muggli’s finger-pointing has made him few friends in a region where economic development is desperately needed and future coal-bed methane production could mean hundreds of new jobs. His claims are denied by industry representatives and some federal scientists, who say a link between coal-bed methane and Muggli’s bad soil cannot be proven.

But state officials and an independent researcher warn that Muggli’s problems might be a harbinger of things to come, as the industry prepares to dramatically ramp up operations across 20 million acres in southeastern Montana.

“We knew this was coming and we wanted to prepare for it,” said Richard Opper, director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. “It’s definitely a wake-up call when you see the impact.”

At issue are millions of gallons of water pumped daily from coal seems to access trapped methane, or natural gas. The water, which can be loaded with salts harmful to plants or soil, is sometimes treated or used to water livestock. Other times, it is pumped directly into local stream and river drainages.

Last year, Montana adopted new water quality rules meant to protect agriculture while allowing for further coal-bed methane development.

Muggli and some other farmers say the rules don’t go far enough, while energy companies have sued to overturn them.

Meanwhile, the federal Bureau of Land Management is working on a plan to allow more than 18,000 coal-bed methane wells to be drilled in Montana over the next 20 years. About 1,000 wells already produce methane in the state.

In neighboring Wyoming, there are more than 17,000 producing wells along the Tongue and the Powder River–a number expected to more than double in coming years. Both rivers flow into Montana.

With vast sums of money at stake–starting at a projected $100 million a year in Montana and peaking at almost $3 billion annually at full production–coal-bed methane companies such as Fidelity Exploration and Production are doing their own agricultural monitoring and say their operations are benign.

They also point to federal studies showing only minor changes to water quality along the Tongue River in recent years, despite increased drilling.

“We have tried to use the best science to ensure there is protection for the irrigators on the Tongue River,” said Bruce Williams, vice president of Fidelity, a subsidiary of MDU Resources Group Inc.

Research indicates that Fidelity’s operations aren’t causing Muggli’s problems, he added. “There’s just an awful lot of data to suggest that’s not the case,” Williams said.

Up to 2 million gallons of water produced by the industry are discharged daily into the Tongue in Montana. Almost 10 times that amount is put into the Powder River upstream in Wyoming, according to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.

Though coal-bed methane water contains sodium, the two rivers have naturally high levels of sodium. So gauging the industry’s impact on the river water is difficult.

Muggli said that when he used irrigation water from the Tongue last growing season, the clay-based soils in three fields were rendered useless.

When clay soil has too much sodium, it can collapse to form an impenetrable seal. With water and air unable to get through the soil, Muggli’s alfalfa turned yellow within a month.

“The only change we’ve had after irrigating with this water for 120 years is CBM (coal-bed methane),” Muggli said. “Who else am I going to blame?”

Matt Janowiak of the Bureau of Land Management said he would rule out CBM discharge water as the cause of Muggli’s problem given the distance between Fidelity’s wells and Muggli’s fields–more than 100 miles.

A study by the U.S. Geological Survey showed a slight increase in sodium levels in the Tongue River. But with the region in the midst of a prolonged drought, the group could not say whether CBM was the cause.

James Bauder, an environmental scientist at Montana State University in Bozeman, said only time will tell if Montana’s regulations are sufficient. In the meantime, he said Muggli’s predicament should be taken as a warning.

“It’s sort of like realizing the back end of the freight train has a problem and you’ve got to get all the way to the front to fix it and you can’t,” he said. “You can’t recall water in a stream and you can’t recall the impact it will have on the landscape.”


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