Coal Bed Methane; New Gas Wells Promise Vancouver Island A Blast from the Past

Delores Broten

Most of the coal mines on Vancouver Island closed long ago. A few working remnants of that robust past linger on, such as Quinsam Coal in Strathcona Park, but Vancouver Island’s coal industry had said farewell to its glory days. Now the ghost of that dangerous and grimy past, when the Royal Navy fuelled up in Nanaimo, and Ginger Goodwin lost his life in a union organizing drive, is surfacing. The implications of coal bed methane gas extraction for an island just beginning a new life in the post-resource extraction era are startling.

Coal bed methane (CBM) is the natural gas trapped under pressure with water in seams of coal. It is currently supplying 8% of US gas requirements. It can be extracted and after collection from several sites to build volume, fed almost directly into natural gas pipelines. The production of many wells is required to develop an economical operation.

Unlike natural gas, CBM is generally “sweet gas” with little or no hydrogen sulphide, benzene or other impurities, except carbon dioxide and water. It burns cleaner than natural gas. This methane is the same clean-burning greenhouse gas that can be produced by “biodigesting” manure and organic wastes.

The US Geological Survey says the US holds about 100 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of CBM economically recoverable with current technology, enough for 5 years’ supply to the US.

The BC Ministry of Energy & Mines estimates that BC holds 90 to 250 trillion cubic feet of available coal bed methane. The ministry comments rosily that if only 20% is extractable, “the marketable volume of 18-50 Tcf is equivalent to 25 to 75 years of gas supply at current production rates.”

In a similar vein, estimates for CBM in the coalfields of Vancouver Island are close to 1 Tcf, which, if 20% was extracted, would “be enough energy for every gas customer on Vancouver Island for about 25 years.” Other areas of BC with high CBM potential are the Peace River, the Elk River area of the East Kootenays, Hat Creek and Telkwa.

In BC, the Crown owns the rights to oil and gas, including coal bed methane, even on private property, except in the areas of old land grants such as Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley. In those areas, the companies must negotiate with private land owners for the drilling rights but the wells still require regulatory approval.

Three companies are reportedly lined up to cash in on the Island’s ghost gas reserves. Priority Ventures, which has tested sites near Courtenay, says it has arranged gas rights for 7000 acres from the landowners, and has applications pending to the Oil and Gas Commission for production wells in the Dove Creek area, near Courtenay. The company claims to be projecting a half billion dollar a year industry, with hundreds of wells from Courtenay to Nanaimo, on the east side of Vancouver Island.

How will they do it?

To get the gas out, it is necessary to force open the fractures in the coal seam, by pumping down a nitrogen-based foam or sand, and then relieve the pressure by extracting water, so that the methane, mixed with water, flows up to the wellhead. The ministry comments that “effective de-watering may take anywhere from several months to several years,” after which the methane flows out until the seam is exhausted and the wellhead is sealed with cement.

The amount of water varies according to the coal seam, but it is substantial. In Wyoming, the environmental council calculates that just 82 wells are dumping almost one and a half million gallons of water a day, enough to fill a football field ten feet deep in 57 hours. The implications for surface and groundwater are startling.

The Ministry notes that the water from CBM wells is usually of good quality but is “formation” water from a deeper depth than drinking water wells. The well shafts are sealed with cement around the pipe so that the deeper water does not get into groundwater, at this stage.

Disposal of water from CBM wells in the US has been by one of three methods:

  • Use for irrigation, or to dilute industrial effluents,
  • Surface discharge, where it is allowed to flow into natural waterways or dumped on the ground and left to seep away into the aquifer, or
  • If the water is not suitable for release, re-injection into deep wells.

In the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, or rather in the dislocated electrons of the Internet, two versions of CBM extraction impacts duel for credibility. The area is in the midst of a methane boom, with the number of CBM wells growing from 227 in 1997 to 2,469 as of March 2000. The Powder River Information Council, an industry association, claims that coalbed methane water is a “much-needed resource” in times of drought for local ranchers (www.cbmwyo.org) although the Council gives a nod to the problem of Sodium Adsorption Ratio, explaining that not all the CBM water is too high in Sodium Adsorption.

To say the Powder River Basin Resource Council, on the other hand, views the situation with alarm would be an understatement. Their website (www.powderriverbasin.org) says that, at the huge scale planned for their area (up to 120,000 wells producing 12 and a half million million cubic feet of methane – comparable to the projections for Vancouver Island), detrimental effects are evident:

“Water must be pumped from the targeted coal seam at rates up to 100 gallons a minute, for as long as the first two years of a well’s operation. Discharge of this water is already causing extensive erosion and in some cases irreversible soil damage from high salt and sodium in the discharge water. Each coalbed methane well produces an average of 20 tons of salt per year.”

With claims that wells have been contaminated or dried up and soils have been irreversibly damaged, the council has appealed and stopped discharges into the Powder River and Tongue River drainage, fighting for deep well injection as a disposal method.

On Vancouver Island, permits are required for the discharge of any industrial waste, including the water, for each well. However, the previous government changed the procedure so that these waste permits will be issued by the Oil and Gas Commission, which also licenses the wells, instead of the Ministry of Water, Land, and Air Protection. That ministry, with its environmental expertise, will do the technical studies on waste discharges, but the Oil and Gas Commission says suitable water disposal will be decided on a site by site basis. The permits will be appealable.

A note of caution was sounded in the late 90’s from Las Animas County, Colorado, where 24 million gallons of water from over 100 wells is dumped on the land every month. Landowners don’t own mineral rights, and must allow the wells, and they fear drinking water aquifer contamination. They sued under the US federal Clean Water Act and the state environment department suddenly discovered that the waste water is toxic to micro-organisms.

British Columbians will have no such recourse once the action starts. We had better get it right the first time. Watch the paper for those notices.

* Selected Sources

“Coal Bed Methane in British Columbia,” BC Ministry of Energy and Mines, at http://www.gov.bc.ca/em/

“Coal-Bed Methane: Potential and Concerns,” USGS Fact Sheet FS-123-00, October 2000

“Look Out Below,” Westworld, November 1998

“Water co-produced with coalbed methane in the Powder River Basin, Wyoming: preliminary compositional data,” USGS Open File, Report 00-372.

[From WS December 2001/January 2002]

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