Gas drilling sparks environment concerns

HELENA - Montana's environment could suffer if state and federal agencies don't develop a consistent way to deal with the potential boom in coal-bed methane development in the Powder River Basin area, state officials told Gov. Marc Racicot on Friday.

Mark Simonich, state Environmental Quality director, told the governor his agency has been struggling with the coal-bed methane issue and that it's time for Montana to lay out a proactive plan involving the three state entities - DEQ, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the Oil and Gas Conservation Board - that regulate the drilling of the fuel. Wyoming and federal agencies should also be included, he said.

"Coal-bed methane is one issue we need to start thinking about in the larger context of how we need to cooperate," Simonich said during the briefing.

Racicot agreed that coordination was needed and suggested that DEQ take charge, but no official decision was made.

"The need for a lead agency is apparent within state government," Racicot said.

Methane gas development is booming in Wyoming and has a lot of potential in Montana. So far, the Montana Oil and Gas Conservation Board has issued 263 permits for wells in the Powder River Basin near Decker, but only 145 wells have been drilled.

Methane gas drilling has sparked environmental concerns and came to a head last month when the Northern Plains Resource Council filed a lawsuit in state court seeking to stop the Montana Oil and Gas Conservation Board from permitting hundreds of coal-bed methane gas wells in southeastern Montana.

This week, the board temporarily agreed to suspend issuing drilling permits until a judge decides whether to issue an injunction against the board.

Twenty-one permits are currently pending before the board.

The NPRC contends that the board is placing the region's farms, ranches, wildlife and fisheries at risk by allowing methane gas developers to pump out massive amounts of groundwater and dump it directly on the land and into the Tongue River.

Wyoming also discharges water into the Powder River and Tongue River drainages. Both rivers flow into Montana.

It's believed that this water is high in sodium and could affect aquatic life and damage irrigated lands and crops, but Simonich said the water is suitable for livestock to drink.

These environmental impacts must be studied before coal-bed methane development booms in Montana, Simonich said. But the DEQ has held off doing an environmental assessment because the federal Bureau of Land Management is in the midst of conducting its own study. Simonich said it's important for the BLM to share its conclusions with the state.

The BLM is expected to release in May its conclusions on how coal-bed methane gas drilling would affect air and water quality along with what impacts it would have on wildlife. The study focuses on the consequences of drilling 250 wells on federal, state and private lands.

"We're not calling it a moratorium, but we're not ready to sign off on permits unless we've done an adequate job," Simonich said about the state's decision to temporarily stop issuing drilling permits.

The DEQ is responsible for issuing permits for any discharge, such as water or air, associated with the wells, while the oil and gas board is in charge of regulating companies that drill on state or private land.

The DEQ has put on hold two pending water quality permits for Redstone Gas Partners, a Denver-based company that so far is the primary developer of methane wells in Montana. The board, meanwhile, is withholding approval of 21 methane drilling permits, including nine requested by Redstone.

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