Coal-based power generation has been a political and environmental issue in Montana for more than 30 years, starting with Colstrip’s enormous coal-fired plants in the 1970s. Now the development of coal bed methane gas is the principal topic of contention between energy developers and environmentalists.
Vast reserves of methane gas occur naturally in the coal beds that underlie much of southeastern Montana. Record high prices for natural gas has led energy companies to develop plans to tap into the coal seams and extract the gas, which would then be used for electric power generation.
However, extracting the coal bed methane may have serious consequences for ranchers and farmers who depend on groundwater for wells and springs. Underground coal is a natural aquifer for ground water—it’s a porous layer of rock that allows the water to percolate below the landscape. Water is also what holds the methane gas in the coal beds. To extract the methane, wells are drilled into the coal seam and the water is pumped out. Methane gathers in the recesses formerly occupied by the water and is drawn to the surface and piped to power plants to be burned.
Pumping coal seams dry to extract methane also risks that wells drilled into the same coal aquifers will cease to provide water for rural residents of the region, meaning that longtime farms and ranches may suddenly have no access to water.
Methane gas development stalled until environmentalists and power-generation companies agreed on a plan to reinject the groundwater back into the coal seams after extracting the gas. Although this is costly for the power producers, it seems to address the concerns of ranchers and environmentalists.
Colstrip is no longer the only focus for power development in eastern Montana. The Great Northern Power Development Company is in the development phase of a huge power plant between Circle and Jordan along Nelson Creek. The planned development includes a 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant based on local lignite, plus a 60-megawatt wind-generation unit based on 50 wind towers.