As Hannah just mentioned in her blog post, the BLM Buffalo Field Office is one of the largest field offices in the country employee-wise—so big that we can’t even fit in one building! So I live in a cozy little cube in the Annex, a short walk from the happenin’ main building of the BFO. My position as a hydrology intern here has introduced me to a side of the BLM that most CLM interns don’t get to delve too deeply into: the energy development side. In my case, coalbed methane (CBM) development is what I’ve gotten very, very familiar with, since that’s what the Hydro crew spends all its time on.
The Powder River Basin (PRB), which comprises most of the Buffalo Field Office, produces a large percentage of the country’s natural gas. In the PRB, methane is relatively easy to extract because it is adsorbed in coal formations near the surface. To access this gas, operators must dig wells and pump out very large quantities of water, which releases the gas from the coal. The methane can then be extracted. Most of the gas in the PRB is found in federal mineral deposits that underlie privately (or, in some cases, federally) owned land. The BLM is thus in charge of permitting and monitoring this development. The Buffalo Field Office was given a mandate by President Bush to—dare I say—drill baby drill, so that is what we facilitate.
There are a lot of issues with CBM development water-wise because of the huge quantities of water that must be pumped out to access the methane. Some of this water is high-quality and could be used, with no or minimal treatment, for irrigation, livestock, or drinking water. A small percentage of the produced water is used in these beneficial ways. However, much of the produced water is saline, alkaline, or has other characteristics that make it less suitable for beneficial use. While a lot of this water could be treated and used, or re-injected into the ground, such methods would be more expensive for the operators, so the vast majority of produced water gets stored in small reservoirs, where it is supposed to infiltrate or evaporate as much as possible. Basically the water is thought of as a waste product. Ultimately, the operators try to get permits from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to discharge the water into streams. The DEQ monitors the quality of this discharged water with an eye towards human health and agriculture, not so much towards aquatic or riparian ecology. The timing and magnitude of the discharges also cause worries about effects on fluvial morphology (basically, the shape of the river).
The BLM doesn’t deal with discharge issues much. We monitor water levels in deep aquifers that are affected by methane production (these aquifers have been drawn down to various extents), and water quality in shallow aquifers that are recharged by water from CBM reservoirs. My job for the last 4 months has been to organize and analyze the latter dataset (water quality) which, despite having been added to quarterly for the last 8 years, has never been looked at or filed in any coherent way. This internship has made me alternately frustrated with and sympathetic towards the BLM—they are just so short-staffed! Hopefully I’ll get to detect some trends before I leave, so we can see what’s going on in the groundwater around the CBM reservoirs. Right now I’m still sorting and graphing. I’ve gotten to be a whiz at Excel!
I have no field work assigned to me, but occasionally I get to tag along on adventures doing well maintenance or reservoir inspections. Once or twice I’ve even snuck off to help with some sage-grouse business. (Ssshh! One very interesting thing I’ve learned during this internship is how divided a single BLM office can be over certain conservation issues. In the Annex I’ve heard the sage-grouse referred to as “that stupid chicken”). That being said, and despite all of the issues I’ve mentioned, and lots more chicken-related ones that I haven’t, methane has its pluses as an energy source. It is much lower carbon-emission-wise than oil and coal. So there are definitely two sides of the CBM coin. I’ve been lucky to see both of them during my internship, as well as some beautiful parts of Wyoming. Everyone in Buffalo is incredibly nice, and the town is great. I’ll miss it when I leave!
– Ariel Patashnik, BLM, Buffalo, WY field office