Pending more study, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has withdrawn a proposed rule that would have more stringently regulated the quality of production water discharges from coalbed methane (CBM) operations.

The Wyoming Environmental Quality Council (EQC) had been scheduled to consider the rule at its regular meeting on Wednesday (Sept. 30). However, in a letter to EQC Chairman Dennis Boal, DEQ Director John Corra asked EQC to withdraw consideration because the “body of information continues to grow suggesting that the rule as proposed may need to be reevaluated or revised to ensure irrigated agriculture below CBM discharges is provided the appropriate level of protection.”

In a report issued earlier this month, two independent consultants hired by the state said the proposed regulation was “not reasonable nor scientifically valid.”

To produce methane gas from coal, water is pumped from coal aquifers and discharged. Concerns have been raised that the discharged water has high levels of sodium, which may inhibit crop production and possibly injure wildlife. However, the consultants recommended that Wyoming officials focus on monitoring and regulating the quantity, rather than the quality, of discharged water because uncontrolled water discharges may have raised the water table, which in turn may have raised soil salinity.

Because “irrigation water management involves numerous factors in addition to water quality (water volume, timing of water application, crop type, soil type, climate, etc.) we believe it is prudent to withdraw the proposed rule and reevaluate to what extent the DEQ may or may not be able to address these other factors,” Corra said. “Specifically, we intend to establish a work group of experts in the field to determine ways, including on-site monitoring, in which the [state’s] permitting program may be able to more effectively regulate CBM discharges.”

While the working group is deliberating, DEQ will continue to issue discharge permits using currently available tools and information that meet the state’s requirements for surface discharge water quality, said Corra.

“However, these permits will contain language which may require reopening of the permits if appropriate methodology is developed by the work group,” he wrote. The work group’s findings “may result in modification of the CBM effluent limits.”

Gov. Dave Freudenthal said Thursday he supported the decision to withdraw the rule.

“The report echoes the serious concerns we’ve had for some time regarding the state’s permitting policy,” Freudenthal said of the consultants’ report. He called for a “measured and thoughtful” approach to issues surrounding CBM discharge water.

“Certainly there will be policy questions that will need to be addressed, but at this point, we need to address the diverse opinions regarding what the science says and what it means,” said Freudenthal. “There are some who think this is an open and shut case, and that we just need to flip a switch and shut down CBM. It is not that simple — nor should it be. There are questions with constitutional, statutory and economic implications that require us to be deliberate in seeking the correct answers.”

Last year an ongoing study by Montana officials indicated that there were no harmful effects from CBM production water discharge on crops, soils and Tongue River water (see Daily GPI, March 3, 2008). The findings supported a similar study issued in 2007 (see Daily GPI, June 15, 2007). In 2006 four Powder River Basin gas producers sued the state of Montana in an attempt to overturn water-quality standards that they said imposed “excessive” requirements on their CBM development in the basin (see Daily GPI, Aug. 2, 2006).

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