Is Coal Bed Methane a Safe and Realistic Option for Coal?

by | Aug 30, 2016

coal bed methaneAfter penning a story that basically concluded that alternative uses for coal to make natural gas or oil were out of economic reach, this writer read another story that says, perhaps, coal bed methane is a realistic option for coal. Is it? 

The piece that appeared in the Washington Times, identifies coal bed methane as “clean” and “renewable” — and something that has been around since the early 1990s. The methane is embedded in the veins of coal blocks, it says, and when extracted is a natural gas. And given that “conventional” natural gas is depleting — we are not talking about drilling out shale gas through fracking — the technology is worth taking a look.

The column says that coal bed methane will be a $17 billion industry by 2020.

“North America and Australia’s demand for sustainable energy, however, has propelled CBM’s expansion,” writes Randeep S. Grewal. “But the fastest growing region for this new form of cleaner energy is in Asia.”

Not so fast: While fuel producers can use it interchangeably with conventional natural gas for electric power generation, it is under fire from environmental groups and ranchers. They argue that production methods are harmful to local water quality, resulting in a number of legal and regulatory challenges.

Those are some of the same arguments used to oppose fracking for shale gas, whereby a concoction of chemicals is used to loosen the unconventional gas from the rocks where it is held. However, no such concoction is employed when drilling for coal bed methane. But is it still environmentally safe?

Coal-bed methane is a form of natural gas that is embedded beneath coal reserves and held in place by water pressure. When the gas is removed, sodium and other salty substances contained in the water must be released. And while there are some promising technologies to purify or isolate the dirty water, it now goes mostly into rivers. That’s’ harmful to farmers who are now at odds with producers over the matter.

The United States has one of the largest supplies of coal on earth and an estimated 700 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of coal-bed natural gas, although only about 100 tcf is now economically recoverable. Coal-bed methane accounts for about 7.5 percent of U.S. natural gas production, the U.S. Geological Survey says. The Rocky Mountains, the San Juan Basin of New Mexico and Colorado and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming are rich with coal-bed methane resources.

Roughly 13 percent of the land in the lower 48 states has coal in the ground. Practically all of that has methane in it. The goal of those who see this as an untapped resource is to make a greater use of the fuel. Others say that it will never be environmentally benign.

US Regulators are sensitive to all concerns. Nationally, the parties agree that if more sites are permitted then better monitoring is essential. Beyond making sure water supplies are not polluted, regulators are concerned with limiting the drilling footprint and any subsequent methane releases once production has begun.

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