As Montana faces the prospect of coalbed methane development, CBM companies and the Northern Plains Resource Council have exchanged charge and countercharge about the safety of CBM water. What is truth? Is the water toxic waste or pure enough for human consumption? Paradoxically the answer to both questions is — yes.
We ranch 14 miles north of Sheridan, Wyo., on the Tongue River. CBM development began on our place in 2001, and peak development was largely complete by 2003. Our approach has been to guide energy development on the ranch to enhance the long-term productivity of the land for cattle and wildlife.
We have experimented with CBM water for irrigation and stock water with mixed results. CBM water was used very successfully for stock water, but our high sodium content water (SAR = 42+) makes irrigation problematic.
Where we intensively irrigated range land, some areas have been damaged. With appropriate soil treatments by CBM companies, most of the ill effects have been erased. CBM annual rentals and surface damage payments have improved the rangeland and hay ground to the extent that long-term carrying capacity and hay production are up 25 percent over pre-CBM levels.
Our bottom-line assessment is that CBM water is neither a panacea nor a curse. It is a mixed blessing. My advice to the CBM companies and the "councils" is to tone down the rhetoric and focus on science-based mitigation. That is what is in the best long term interest of both states.
Let's get on with it!
Forest B. Dunning