“Gasland” and the Powder River Coal Basin

Laramie Throughout our journey through the west, the HBO documentary, Gasland, was a frequent topic of conversation.  I’ll have to wait until I get home to track it down, but I gather there were shots throughout Wyoming and this area of water coming out of taps in flames and other wildness that would naturally rivet your attention.  Last night stopping in at the legendary Buckhorn bar along the Laramie railroad tracks, a woman next to me, hearing I was lived in New Orleans, made the oil spill a topic of conversation bringing agreement from the entire bar filled with oil hands and cowboys on this evening that the BP oil spill was a “royal screw.”  There was an argument from the crowd on whether or not Tebow, fumbling in the 4th quarter for the Broncos, would make it in the pros, but total agreement on the spill.  Then, she confounded me by saying she was heading soon for North Dakota, which is usually the lead-in to a joke in Montana and Wyoming, because all of the “guys were going there for the methane.”  What was up?

CBM is the common abbreviation out here as shorthand for coal-based methane.  Methane is a natural gas that is held on coal deposits by water pressure, essentially.  As prices for oil and gas have risen, the economies of pulling the water out in order to release the methane for commercial production have improved.   Like oil shale for years more of this has been talk than action, but if there is going to be action, this is the part of the country where it will be front and center because of the giant Powder River coal deposit that lies under not only the Powder River Basin in eastern Wyoming, but also a good chunk of eastern Montana and western and central North Dakota.  Our buddies at British Petroleum announced a huge project in Canada a couple of years ago, but for a lot of the first decade of this century this was just more boom-and-bust talk at the bars.  According to the website of my friends at Dakota Resource Council, one of the well respected WORC affiliates, test drilling and other activity has been heating up in their area.

Anything that has combines water and coal out here is guaranteed to create controversy that’s a given.  The Bismarck Tribune touted a recently released study by a sub-group of the National Academy of Science that claims that within a certain cost range some of the water released and wasted could be used for agricultural and livestock uses, but was vague on the costs and where this might be possible.

Dakota Resource Council and pretty much everyone else seemed to feel that the states had not moved to sufficiently protect the land or the ranchers and farmers from the impact of CBM production either in bonding for damages, spacing of the wells, or understanding of consequences of the recovery and production.  In these states resources are big business and often the only business, but it doesn’t take a documentary to prove to most people that it makes sense to be prepared before the drilling goes wild and wooly, rather than pretend to clean up the mess later.

I bet I could have gotten agreement at the Buckhorn that it’s best to keep the firewater at the bar, rather than on tap at the house.