Friday, October 30, 2009

Wyoming coal-gas drillers win round in water war with downstream Montana ranchers

Montana farmers have been finding a lot of salt in their water for three years, and state regulators are pointing to neighboring Wyoming coalbed methane (CBM) operations as the culprit. "Water, pumped by the millions of gallons from coal seams to help coax gas to the surface, is then routinely pumped back into the Tongue River and other watersheds by CBM operators, where it indiscriminately mixes with downstream water supplies," Scott Streater of Greenwire reports for The New York Times.

To protect Montana farmers from upstream CBM discharges, the state, supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, adopted strict limits on salinity in the Tongue, Powder and Little Powder rivers, which drain from Wyoming. The regulations are in jeopardy after a Wyoming federal judge ruled that EPA failed to properly review studies and other arguments made by the natural-gas industry that the standards "were not based on sound science," Streater reports. Wyoming also argued that it was not required to comply with Montana's standards under the Clean Water Act. EPA has until Nov. 3 to inform the Justice Department if it plans to appeal the ruling. If it does not appeal, EPA can initiate a new review of the regulations, revise them or abandon them completely.

Mike Volesky, natural resources policy adviser for Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, says the West's next water war may pit farming that provides long-term economic stability for Montana against CBM that is a one-time boost for Wyoming. "It's around for 10 or 15 years, and then it's gone," Volesky said. "But once they're gone, there are still ranchers and farmers out there that have to depend on the water for a living."(Read more)

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