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Debunking the Natural Gas "Clean Energy" Myth: Coalbed Methane in Wyoming's Powder River Basin

May 2001

Citation: ELR 10566

Author: Thomas F. Darin and Amy W. Beatie

"When the trees are made of plastic and there's no more oil to drill; when Africa is empty and the zoos are finally filled; we'll sacrifice our children at the altar to the God of fossil fuel."1

I. Introduction

Natural gas—which includes the methane derived from coal seams (coalbed methane)—is largely viewed as "clean energy." The only aspect true about this belief is that natural gas burns many times cleaner than coal, and is widely accepted as the cleanest burning of all fossil fuels. However, burning cleaner does not equate to a clean form of energy. Often ignored by government agencies, the natural gas industry, and even some environmental organizations is the fact that natural gas exploration and production often have tremendous and negative impacts on the natural environment. Considering the production-end damage resulting from natural gas extraction, this form of energy is anything but "clean." The purpose of this Article is to provide a case study of the production-end environmental consequences of natural gas production and exploration: coalbed methane extraction in Wyoming's Powder River Basin (PRB or Basin).

Coalbed methane (CBM) is now the "hottest natural gas play in the United States."2 Industry analysts describe CBM development in the Wyoming portion of the PRB—an area encompassing over 20,000 square miles in the Northeast part of the state—as the "fastest growing coalbed methane play in North America."3 Within the United States, CBM has grown from almost complete obscurity only 20 years ago to an established and growing energy source, supplying 6% of current total dry natural gas production.4 Experts project that dry natural gas consumption will increase 40 times faster than all other energy types by 2015, and with it, CBM production will continue to grow.5

Mr. Darin received a J.D. from Northern Illinois University College of Law (1993) and a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame (1990). He is licensed in the state and federal courts in Colorado, Illinois, Montana, and Wyoming, and presently is staff attorney and Director of Public Lands and Resources at the Wyoming Outdoor Council (WOC), a nonprofit conservation group based in Lander, Wyoming. Mr. Darin practices public interest environmental law and focuses on oil and gas extraction, rangeland reform issues, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and other issues related to public lands. Mr. Darin can be reached at tom@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org.

Ms. Beatie received her law degree from the University of Denver College of Law (2000) and a B.A. from Dartmouth College (1993). She is licensed to practice law in the state of Colorado and is presently the Coalbed Methane Special Project Director at the WOC. Ms. Beatie practices public interest environmental law with an emphasis on the Clean Water Act and NEPA as these laws apply to coalbed methane.

The authors owe a substantial debt of gratitude to WOC staffer Michele Barlow for research and data compilation that made this Article possible. This Article references a substantial number of materials obtained from federal and state agencies, as well as information available on the Internet. All materials cited are on file with the authors.

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