Produced water from natural gas shale deposits has drawn a lot of attention nationwide, but that focus soon may turn to produced water in coalbed methane (CBM) operations, according to the results of a new study.

CBM accounts for about 10% of annual domestic dry gas output today; production is concentrated in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. CBM drilling wastewater can be safely treated and used for livestock, farms and wildlife. However, many operators dispose of the produced water, and federal regulators wanted to take a look at what long-term effect that could have on the environment.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was directed under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to study the wastewater effects, and the federal agency asked the National Research Council (NRC) to evaluate CBM produced water management in the Powder River, San Juan, Raton, Piceance and Uinta CBM basins. The study, "Management and Effects of Coalbed Methane Produced Water in the United States," is expected to be used by BLM to review the regulatory regime.

"Although directed toward CBM basins in the arid West, the report bears on CBM production and produced water issues in other CBM basins in the United States," the NRC authors stated. "To date no national consensus has been reached on clearly defined goals, objectives, management positions or policies that take into account potential environmental effects of CBM produced water and allow for consideration of a range of potential beneficial use options.

"Resolving these gaps could increase the ability of public and private stakeholders to develop effective, and environmentally and economically sound, CBM development and produced water management strategies and practices."

What researchers determined is that the short-term environmental effects of CBM produced water appear to be relatively benign, but the long-term effects need more study. Among other things the researchers identified:

The study, which is in pre-production for a final review, is available online at www.nap.edu.

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