Coal Bed Methane, if done right…

by Susan Simons

HUERFANO- If done right, coalbed methane production (CBM) can benefit Huerfano County with more energy, more jobs and sustainable growth.  What’s more, many industry operators are committed to doing it right because they know responsible drilling is good business and more profitable in the long run.  However, many feel the last 30 years of oil and gas exploration in Colorado have shown that some operators are more committed to profit than to minimizing impact on water, air, quality of life, and the health of the community.  Local government and local citizens can do a lot and be active in getting CBM operators to do it right in Huerfano County.

    About 85 citizens, as well as Huerfano County Commissioners and a representative from Ken Salazar’s office, got together July 17 at the Huerfano County Community Center to hear Ken Watts, a groundwater specialist with the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS), and Lance Astrella, a Denver attorney who has spent 30 years in energy law.  They gave background on the issue and spoke about municipal/landowner rights and responsibilities.

    The greatest concern for Huerfano  County is depletion of its water.  CBM producers pump water out of coal seams in order to release the methane.  According to Watts, CBM operators “reduce hydrostatic pressure- that’s what they do- they reduce several hundred pounds per square inch.  If you change the pressure that much, you are going to reduce pressure from springs …and may even deplete spring and stream flow.”  In a report published by USGS titled “Scientific Investigation 2006-5109,” it was reported that in 2004, CBM operators produced 3 ½ billion gallons of water from the Raton Basin.  More than twice as much water was produced for CBM in that year than all other groundwater use in Huerfano and Las Animas counties in a normal year.”

    An equally important concern in the County is contamination of water in wells, streams, and rivers.  As Watts pointed out, the geology of the area is difficult and unique.  The formations aren’t uniform. The dikes are thought to have both vertical and horizontal fractures along their bases.  Pumping billions  of gallons of water out of the ground reduces hydrostatic pressure, and fracturing coal seams to release methane gas may change the patterns of underground fractures.  Gas may seep up along fractures but no one can predict where or when. 

    Astrella also pointed out that stormwater run off  is an issue in Huerfano County.  An intense storm can clog waterways, cause erosion, and spill water from CBM holding pits into local soils and waterways.  Both speakers agreed that gas extraction is a water management issue.

    Both speakers also agreed that if  water quantity or quality is damaged by CBM operations, it will be up to the municipality or landowner to prove it.  It is important to collect baseline data before drilling begins.  Some of the general suggestions were the following:  take photographs of land, drainages, and roads before and after; document air quality before and after;  measure well water levels frequently and have water quality testing done by a certified lab before drilling and after, looking for CBM markers.

    Watts explained general guidelines for measuring well water levels.  He stated that groundwater is always changing due to climatic and seasonal fluctuations.  It is best to measure frequently and  keep a written record of normal fluctuations.  Water quality must be measured by a certified lab to insure that the information will hold up in court.  If any landowner wants to join with others who are working out procedures and equipment for water level testing and water quality testing, Bob and Margye Damjanovich on Majors Ranch have agreed to be a contact at 738-2865.

    Astrella’s talk covered two topics:  the legal rights of municipalities/landowners and practical actions citizens can take.  Three recent developments in Colorado have provided landowners with new protections of surface rights.  First, a 1997 decision of the Colorado Supreme Court, Gerritty v. Magness, won this concession: that industry minimize impacts to the surface and assume the burden of proof that best practices have been used.  Second, House Bill 1252, the Landowner’s Protection Act, formalizes this decision. Third, recent changes in the make-up and charge of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) should provide more protections for landowners while at the same time benefiting the industry.

    Astrella praised the work COGCC has done in the last year to involve industry and citizen’s groups in stakeholder’s meetings. Astrella said, “It was very impressive to see what this governing body has done to get a balanced set of regulations… Everyone saw a lot about the other side’s point of view.”   The Commission will deliberate on the new regulations August 12-14.

    Astrella also gave practical suggestions.  He suggested that concerned property owners and the county identify a group of experts and all take their business to the same professionals.  This would include water attorneys, landmen, and retired engineers and geologists in the county who can consult.  Municipalities and citizens can also do research on the best technology alternatives for CBM extraction, inform the public, and pressure companies to use these practices.  He recommended learning from the experience of citizen’s groups like the Oil and Gas Accountability Project and the San Juan Citizen’s Alliance in La Plata County.

    In response to a question from a representative of Navajo Ranch, Astrella talked about the possibility of a lawsuit against industry after damage has been done.  He  admitted that reclamation bonds are “pathetically low,” and that small operators often do not have the money to cover the costs of repair and reclamation.  He suggested it is a much better tactic to require companies to research effects on a smaller lease before they begin their larger operation.  Also, he emphasized again that if landowners do not have baseline data, they have little chance of winning a case in court.

    John Galusha,  County Administrator, announced that the County Commissioners have declared a moratorium on all new oil and gas drilling permits in Huerfano County until Jan. 1, 2009.  By that time, County Commissioners expect to have county regulations in place modeled after the regulations in La Plata County which have been developed over the last 30 years.

    If done right, coalbed methane drilling can benefit Huerfano County with more energy, more jobs and  sustainable growth.  Local government and local citizens can do a lot and be more active in getting CBM operators to do it right in Huerfano County.