Environmental and Health Impacts on the Crow Reservation from Coalbed Methane

This page was written by Erin Klauk as part of the DLESE Community Services Project: Integrating Research in Education. Funding was provided in part by the Montana Office of Public Instruction .

Development of Coalbed Methane in the Powder River Basin.
Development of Coalbed Methane in the Powder River Basin. Details

On the surface, development of coalbed methane appears to offer the communities of the Powder River Basin, including the Crow Nation, a long-awaited economic advantage, but the long-term impacts to global warming, water resources of the area, fish and wildlife, and agriculture must be considered (Coalbed Methane: Short-term Boom, Long-term Bust (more info) ). As with the production of most natural resources, the development of coalbed methane is accompanied by significant environmental challenges, including prevention of the unintended loss of methane to the atmosphere during underground mining, and disposal of large quantities of water, sometimes saline, that are unavoidably produced with the gas (Coalbed Methane - An Untapped Energy Resource and an Environmental Concern (more info) ). Coalbed methane development is not without a number of environmental problems and human health hazards. Some of these impacts that are of concern include the disposal of water removed from coalbed methane wells, drinking water levels dropping, contamination of aquifers, venting and seeping of methane and other chemicals, underground fires, air pollution feeding to global warming, destruction of land and harm to wildlife, as well as further impacts on landowners (Coalbed Methane Development: Boon or Bane for Rural Residents? (more info) ).

Fortunately, these potential issues can be monitored and managed in order to reduce their impact, however, coalbed methane is fairly new, having only been developed as a resource for about 25 years. As seen with the uranium mining on the Navajo Nation, the extent of environmental and human health impacts are not always well known until the damage has been done. Environmental Impact Statements have been completed, and although they are being challenged, they at least remain a starting point. The EPA has also established a voluntary program to reduce methane emissions in the coal mining industry. This program, known as the Coalbed Methane Outreach Program (CMOP) helps the coal industry identify the technologies, markets, and finance sources to profitably use or sell the methane that coal mines would otherwise vent to the atmosphere (EPA - Sources and Emissions of Coalbed Methane).

With care, it seems that the environmental costs of coalbed methane can be reduced, however, questions remain about the detrimental effects that the removal of coalbed methane could have on the environment, especially the water, in the Rocky Mountain Region.

Aerial view of a Wyoming gas field. Details

Click here for more information about the effects of coalbed methane on the hydrology of the area.

To further investigate impacts from coalbed methane on the Crow Nation, follow the links below.

Investigate the Impacts from Coalbed Methane on the Crow Nation

Resources containing information about the impacts from coalbed methane on the Crow Nation.

For ideas on how to use these webpages in a classroom, a Study Guide is provided.