A recently released study, funded by the Montana Oil and Gas Conservation Board, says the discharge of a limited amount of untreated coalbed methane (CBM) wastewater into the Tongue River in Montana is not substantially affecting water quality or damaging crops downstream of Wyoming and Montana CBM operations.

The research project was paid for by Fidelity Exploration & Production for the years 2003 until 2006. This past year, the Montana agency that regulates energy development in the state picked up the tab for the study, which monitored the quality of irrigation water and the soil and crop yield of farming and ranching operations in southeastern Montana.

CBM activity along the Tongue River Basin has mushroomed since 1999. The study noted that through 2006, approximately 3,009 CBM wells were drilled in the basin, 73% of which are in Wyoming. Approximately 75% of CBM-produced water is “directed to off-channel facilities, beneficially used, or treated prior to discharge,” with the balance discharged into the Tongue via permits obtained from the states of Montana or Wyoming.

Seven permits have been issued for discharge of CBM-produced water to the Tongue River, three of the permits in Montana and four in Wyoming. The report concluded that “based on the combination of the lengthy drought conditions, energy development, and concerns over irrigation water supplies, continued monitoring of the river’s flow and quality, and an improved accounting of basin-wide point and nonpoint sources of contaminants is warranted.”

Montana authorities have long been concerned that excess salts contained in CBM-produced water would degrade the state’s waterways and hurt agricultural interests in the southeastern part of the state. In a move to protect its waters and agriculturalists, the state adopted strict water quality standards for CBM operators. Those stringent rules have caused a number of Wyoming and Montana CBM producers to sue Montana (see NGI, Aug. 7, 2006).

The water and soil study was designed by soil scientists and an agronomist from Montana. Landowners whose fields were sampled for the study participated on a voluntary basis. To read the recently released findings see 2007 Progress Report: Tongue River Agronomic Monitoring and Protection Program: and 2007 Tongue River Hydrology Report. Both reports are available at https://bogc.dnrc.state.mt.us.

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