Coalbed methane, a citizen’s guide

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Coal miners fear it because it is highly explosive, but in twenty years coalbed methane (CBM) has gone from ‘complete obscurity’ to supplying 7% of the total US natural gas production. Along the way it has generated a lot of public controversy.

In BC, the provincial government (the ‘Province’) is now aggressively pursuing CBM investment. If the CBM industry responds, and some technical problems are solved, many communities across BC will experience the CBM industry first hand.

The Province is promoting CBM as a ‘clean, environmentally safe, energy source.’ There are many in the US and in Canada who strongly disagree with this characterization. The objective of this Citizen’s Guide is to document the views of both proponents and opponents of CBM in order to help inform BC citizens about the potential environmental implications of CBM. The Guide focuses on CBM experience in the US, to help BC citizens articulate questions for BC companies and regulators.

Like conventional oil and gas development, CBM is a fossil fuel. Burning it to make energy will release greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change. Also like conventional oil and gas, it will bring wells, roads, flaring, pipelines, and processing facilities to the farm fields and wilderness areas above where it is found. See West Coast Environmental Law’s Pump it Out: The Environmental Costs of BC’s Oil and Gas Industry for information on a typical oil and gas project and its potential environmental consequences.

CBM development, however, raises a number of unique environmental issues. Examples are concentrated land use disruptions (CBM wells are spaced considerably closer than conventional wells), considerable volumes of ‘waste’ water, and the risk of methane migration into water supplies and soils. Each of these concerns, and others, are summarized in this Guide, as is the regulatory regime set up to address them.

Part 1 of the Guide describes CBM and sets out what is happing in BC, what proponents of CBM say, what US citizen’s and landowners are saying, and what US governments have done.

Part 2 of the Guide focuses on CBM and the environment: how to get CBM out of the ground, what could happen to the environment as a result, what environmental laws apply to CBM, and what can be done to reduce or eliminate environmental damage.

Part 3 of the Guide sets out a number of things a BC citizen can do in order to be more involved in the policy-making and decision-making processes.

For a more comprehensive summary of environmental law and upstream oil and gas– including information on the BC Oil and Gas Commission, environmental assessment law, First Nations aboriginal and treaty rights, the Province’s compliance and enforcement record with existing laws, and federal environmental laws–please consult Pump it Out.