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Putting a meter on coalbed water

By Dustin BleizefferStar-Tribune energy reporter Star Tribune – Laramie, WY, August 23, 2004

LARAMIE -- You've probably done it. It's hot, you're thirsty. Sweet soda won't quench your thirst so you fork over $1.50 for a bottle of cold, clean water. One-five-O for H2O. Absurd, right?

Maybe not.

As populations blossom in the West, so too does the value of water. And one conservation group claims the coalbed methane gas industry in Wyoming is throwing away a fortune in water -- perhaps $2 billion to $10 billion worth.

"Think about what we really value, and then think about money and try to put them on the same page. We need to find a way to talk about all of these things," Nancy Myers told a group of scientists and professors this week at the Ruckelshaus Institute's "Coalbed Natural Gas Research, Monitoring and Applications" conference in Laramie.

Myers is communications director for the Science & Environmental Health Network. The group recently published an economic analysis of the coalbed methane gas industry, focusing on the value of the water produced from coalbed methane wells and the environmental risks associated with it. It's called "Easy Money, Hidden Costs."

The group calculated the value of coalbed methane water by using per-acre dollar amounts paid in recent water legal fights in the West, Myers said. It also assumed a 17 percent to 36 percent population increase in Wyoming over the next 20 years. If the industry pumps a total 13 trillion gallons in the next 20 years, and if half of that water is lost -- not put to use or allowed to flow out of state or evaporate -- then Wyoming will have lost $10 billion worth of one of the most valuable resources in the West.

Think of 11 trillion gallons of water. That's enough to meet the household needs of all the current residents in Wyoming and Montana for 150 years, according to the report.

"The (financial) benefits (of coalbed methane development) are all in the short term, in the next 20 years. But the costs and risks are spread out over many people and over many years," Myers said.

Industry representatives contend that only a fraction of coalbed methane water is lost through evaporation or flowing out of state. Much of the water is put to beneficial use, either to water cattle and wildlife, provide wildlife habitat, or applied to grow alfalfa and other crops. The rest soaks back into the ground for future use.

"I disagree that it's a waste," said John Robitaille of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.

Called Friday for a comment, Robitaille said he believes the Science & Environmental Health Network's study doesn't take into account all the various uses of coalbed methane water.

"They (gas producers) are spending money on the management of the water," Robitaille said. "Ranchers are benefiting from it for livestock water, they're growing tremendous amounts of hay and the wildlife is also benefiting from this. There's water where there has not be water before."

Several other speakers at the Ruckelshaus conference said the industry is already trying to figure out ways to produce more gas while producing less water. Not only does it save the water resource, but it also saves producers and landowners from having to manage the water on the surface.

"Out of necessity, I think you're going to see them (coalbed methane producers) paying attention to how much water they produce," said John Wagner, administrator of the Wyoming Department of Quality's Water Quality Division.

Wagner made the comment Thursday while participating in a roundtable discussion about how to apply current research to regulation and industry practice.


Energy reporter Dustin Bleizeffer can be reached at (307) 682-3388 or

On the Web: Find out more about the "Easy Money, Hidden Costs" study by visiting (

To find out more about the coalbed methane gas industry, visit the Wyoming Coalbed Natural Gas Alliance Web site ( or the Wyoming CBM Clearinghouse Web site(

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