Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. Not for republication by Wyoming media.

Robinson is helping oversee the federal environmental review process for Luca Technologies Inc.’s Rough Draw Project. The company, based in Golden, Colo., is seeking permission to farm methane in federal coal in an 18,000-acre area north of Gillette, Wyo., using existing wells.

State and federal environmental officials say they have not heard of the practice happening anywhere else. “It’s very new and very unique,” Kathy Shreve, an official with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, said in an interview.

But methane farming has caught the attention of the coal industry, which is concerned about the practice’s impact on the Powder River Basin’s valuable coal. A March 2010 report that BLM made public late last year says methane farming could reduce the quality of coal and its British-thermal-unit level by as much as 1 percent. Many of Luca’s farming plans are near existing coal mining leases.

“There is a strong possibility of conflicts between methane farming and coal mining,” the report says. “It would be beneficial to the U.S. if these conflicts were avoided.”

Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, says methane farming seems like a great idea — as long as it does not threaten coal deposits valuable to the companies he represents.

“We would prefer to see them develop out away from the mine in deep coal,” Loomis said in an interview. “We support them testing it, but we don’t want them to test it right ahead of our mines.

“If they would lower the Btu content by 4 percent, they would probably destroy the economics of that entire coal deposit,” Loomis added.

Luca turned down repeated interview requests for this story. Last year, the company filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission to take the company public. A spokesman said executives were trying to comply with “quiet period” rules.

However, the company has defended its methods in documents and communications with regulators.

“Coal seams that have produced the most [coal-bed methane] are the coal seams with the highest BTU values,” a Luca document states. “This would indicate the natural process does not destroy the coal.”

“That is the exact question we want to answer with the pilot project,” Robinson said. “We have experts on both sides of the fence who claim both sides.”

For their part, environmentalists are concerned about the land and water quality impacts of the technology, which they say remain largely unknown. They say Luca has done some injections but not enough to know the true effect.

“These coal seams are drinking water aquifers. They’re used by our members for water,” said Shannon Anderson, an organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, in an interview. “We’ve been told that they are perfectly safe … but we are interested in having a true pilot project.”

Luca’s bacteria nutrients include calcium, magnesium, potassium and soy protein, among many others. State regulators say its injection permits require monitoring and sampling.

“It is unlikely that trace metals will be released from the coals or become more concentrated in coals as a result of Luca enhancing methanogenesis,” the company told BLM. “Luca’s laboratory data indicate there does not seem to be significantly higher concentrations of trace metals after methanogenesis.”

Documents indicate that Luca has spent at least $40 million developing methane farming technology. They say the process is necessary to extend the life of existing gas wells to prevent them from running dry. Regulators say the company is exploring methane farming in other states.

Still, regulators have to grapple with questions of royalties, land ownership and a permanent regulatory scheme for methane farming. BLM’s public scoping period for Luca’s Rough Draw site ends next week and has already generated lively debate in the region.

“It became clear very early on in the process,” he said, “that there are a lot of people interested.”

How to regulate?

Methane farming is so new that regulators have struggled to figure out how to police the practice.

Wyoming state lawmakers passed legislation last year to help provide for state permitting. The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission mulled over drafting new rules but decided against it.

While the state commission and DEQ split jurisdiction for one of Luca’s methane farming requests, last week DEQ issued the company another permit on its own for both water injection and nutrient application. Kevin Frederick, DEQ groundwater manager, said that is how the state would proceed from now on.

“We wanted to make sure that the permitting system we were applying would be something that would be acceptable to U.S. EPA,” he said in an interview, adding that state officials have been in close contact with their federal counterparts over the issue of methane farming.

Another company, Centennial, Colo.-based Ciris Energy Inc., has also submitted applications to the state for what regulators call field pilot projects, also in the Powder River Basin.

“Each company considers the process a trademark secret,” said Shreve of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. “But it’s basically the same idea.”

BLM’s Robinson said the agency has been exploring whether to oversee the practice under the coal or gas program. The current public comment period is for a less-stringent environmental assessment, but he said the review could turn into a full-blown environmental impact statement.

“This is research and development,” Robinson said. “The company has made certain claims in their application, but we have not seen the data, and we’d like to confirm those claims.”

Wyoming’s Powder River Basin is at the center of a growing debate over a new technology to artificially generate methane from coal seams.

The process, called methane farming, involves injecting water with nutrients into coal. The fluid then stimulates microbes already present in the seams to create methane gas faster than they would otherwise.

“According to what the company says, this is actually a natural process that happens over millions of years,” said Mike Robinson, project manager with the Bureau of Land Management, in an interview. “They’re not injecting microbes; they’re injecting nutrients to microbes.”

Robinson is helping oversee the federal environmental review process for Luca Technologies Inc.’s Rough Draw Project. The company, based in Golden, Colo., is seeking permission to farm methane in federal coal in an 18,000-acre area north of Gillette, Wyo., using existing wells.

State and federal environmental officials say they have not heard of the practice happening anywhere else. “It’s very new and very unique,” Kathy Shreve, an official with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, said in an interview.

But methane farming has caught the attention of the coal industry, which is concerned about the practice’s impact on the Powder River Basin’s valuable coal. A March 2010 report that BLM made public late last year says methane farming could reduce the quality of coal and its British-thermal-unit level by as much as 1 percent. Many of Luca’s farming plans are near existing coal mining leases.

“There is a strong possibility of conflicts between methane farming and coal mining,” the report says. “It would be beneficial to the U.S. if these conflicts were avoided.”

Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, says methane farming seems like a great idea — as long as it does not threaten coal deposits valuable to the companies he represents.

“We would prefer to see them develop out away from the mine in deep coal,” Loomis said in an interview. “We support them testing it, but we don’t want them to test it right ahead of our mines.

“If they would lower the Btu content by 4 percent, they would probably destroy the economics of that entire coal deposit,” Loomis added.

Luca turned down repeated interview requests for this story. Last year, the company filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission to take the company public. A spokesman said executives were trying to comply with “quiet period” rules.

However, the company has defended its methods in documents and communications with regulators.

“Coal seams that have produced the most [coal-bed methane] are the coal seams with the highest BTU values,” a Luca document states. “This would indicate the natural process does not destroy the coal.”

“That is the exact question we want to answer with the pilot project,” Robinson said. “We have experts on both sides of the fence who claim both sides.”

For their part, environmentalists are concerned about the land and water quality impacts of the technology, which they say remain largely unknown. They say Luca has done some injections but not enough to know the true effect.

“These coal seams are drinking water aquifers. They’re used by our members for water,” said Shannon Anderson, an organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, in an interview. “We’ve been told that they are perfectly safe … but we are interested in having a true pilot project.”

Luca’s bacteria nutrients include calcium, magnesium, potassium and soy protein, among many others. State regulators say its injection permits require monitoring and sampling.

“It is unlikely that trace metals will be released from the coals or become more concentrated in coals as a result of Luca enhancing methanogenesis,” the company told BLM. “Luca’s laboratory data indicate there does not seem to be significantly higher concentrations of trace metals after methanogenesis.”

Documents indicate that Luca has spent at least $40 million developing methane farming technology. They say the process is necessary to extend the life of existing gas wells to prevent them from running dry. Regulators say the company is exploring methane farming in other states.

Still, regulators have to grapple with questions of royalties, land ownership and a permanent regulatory scheme for methane farming. BLM’s public scoping period for Luca’s Rough Draw site ends next week and has already generated lively debate in the region.

“It became clear very early on in the process,” he said, “that there are a lot of people interested.”

How to regulate?

Methane farming is so new that regulators have struggled to figure out how to police the practice.

Wyoming state lawmakers passed legislation last year to help provide for state permitting. The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission mulled over drafting new rules but decided against it.

While the state commission and DEQ split jurisdiction for one of Luca’s methane farming requests, last week DEQ issued the company another permit on its own for both water injection and nutrient application. Kevin Frederick, DEQ groundwater manager, said that is how the state would proceed from now on.

“We wanted to make sure that the permitting system we were applying would be something that would be acceptable to U.S. EPA,” he said in an interview, adding that state officials have been in close contact with their federal counterparts over the issue of methane farming.

Another company, Centennial, Colo.-based Ciris Energy Inc., has also submitted applications to the state for what regulators call field pilot projects, also in the Powder River Basin.

“Each company considers the process a trademark secret,” said Shreve of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. “But it’s basically the same idea.”

BLM’s Robinson said the agency has been exploring whether to oversee the practice under the coal or gas program. The current public comment period is for a less-stringent environmental assessment, but he said the review could turn into a full-blown environmental impact statement.

“This is research and development,” Robinson said. “The company has made certain claims in their application, but we have not seen the data, and we’d like to confirm those claims.”

(Banner photo by Eastcolfax/Flickr)

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