A state district court judge in Billings, MT, upheld state water quality standards that had been challenged by coalbed methane (CBM) producers. Conservation groups claimed "a major legal victory" while at least one producer said it was in compliance and no changes to operations would be necessary.

In his Oct. 18 ruling, District Judge Blair Jones, of Montana's Twenty-Second Judicial District, sided with state regulators and conservation groups in upholding numeric water quality standards for electrical conductivity (EC) and sodium adsorption ratio (SAR).

"There was never any doubt in our minds that the state acted properly when it set water quality rules to protect Montana ranching and farming families like mine," said Mark Fix, a Tongue River rancher and chair of Northern Plains Resource Council. "We're comforted that the judge found so strongly in our favor."

The state adopted the standards following requests by the Northern Plains Resource Council and the Tongue River Water Users Association to protect agriculture from pollution and crop losses caused by CBM development.

A number of energy companies, led by Fidelity Exploration and Production, Marathon Oil Co., Marathon subsidiary Pennaco Energy Inc., Nance Petroleum Corp. and Yates Petroleum Corp, appealed the rules, arguing that the Montana Board of Environmental Review (BER) acted improperly in establishing the water quality protections, which they alleged were without a sound scientific basis.

Jones rejected each of the five claims industry lawyers offered in attempting to overturn the numeric water quality standards. He found that the BER acted properly when it determined enforceable numeric standards were needed to regulate methane development and that the state was warranted in taking proactive measures to protect water quality.

"There is nothing in the record to suggest that the BER's decision was based on anything but a careful consideration of relevant factors," Jones wrote.

Industry lawyers argued there was no evidence of damage to agriculture and that the state should have waited for damage to occur prior to acting.

Bruce Williams, Fidelity vice president of operations, told the Associated Press that since the rules were already in place and his company was in compliance there would be no effect on operations from Jones' ruling.

The BER initiated its rulemaking in 2006 after Northern Plains petitioned the state to institute a nondegradation policy, which protects the existing quality of Montana surface waters that irrigators depend on for their livelihood, and support Montana fisheries and aquatic life.

Jones' decision upholds Montana's water quality standards that have been federally approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Last month Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) called on the Interior Department to comply with an Energy Policy Act of 2005 directive that requires the agency to fund a study of the effects of CBM production on ground and surface water resources (see NGI, Sept. 10).

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