Cows trek across a dry portion of the Powder River between Gillette and Buffalo in 2006. The river often runs dry in years of drought. Ranchers and others in the Powder River Basin rely heavily on groundwater. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

EPA chooses experimental coal gasification over water

Guest column by Bob LeResche
— October 2, 2014

In 2012, the Powder River Basin Resource Council published a six-point plan to protect Wyoming’s groundwater. The report found that 99 percent of those living in rural America rely on groundwater, but unfortunately that primary source of water is becoming increasingly limited. We noted that this is especially true in the Powder River Basin, where residents rely almost entirely on groundwater for domestic uses and for most industrial and livestock watering needs.

Bob LeResche

Drawing down or rendering aquifers undrinkable can have significant impacts both on our society and on the environment. Wyoming and the Mountain West have very few alternative healthy groundwater sources. If depleted or polluted beyond recovery, our economies and communities can only shrivel and disappear.

Earlier this month the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – the federal agency charged with protecting water supplies across the nation – made the unfortunate and troubling decision to explicitly allow contamination of a portion of an important Wyoming aquifer. At the urging of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and Linc Energy, EPA granted an exemption from Safe Drinking Water Act protections for part of the Fort Union aquifer near Wright in southern Campbell County. The exemption allows Linc, the Australian-based company that requested the exemption, to pollute the aquifer as part of its proposed experimental underground coal gasification project.

EPA’s decision contradicts important regulatory criteria that must be met in order for the agency to grant any aquifer exemption. Here, the water in the aquifer is clean enough to be used as a drinking water source – a source which EPA is obliged to protect. Yet EPA ignored the clear intent of their regulations to preserve future sources of domestic water supply. Instead of protecting the aquifer, they are allowing it to be contaminated by this project. Past underground coal gasification experiments have created some nasty pollutants, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes, phenols, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — all of which are known carcinogens.

Equally troubling is EPA granting the exemption solely because there is coal present in the aquifer, without proving that there are “commercially producible” minerals present, as required. In the case of Linc’s project, they don’t even intend to sell any synthetic gas produced – instead they will flare it off. Underground coal gasification remains a nascent technology, unproven at a commercial scale. EPA is giving away a Wyoming water source in the mere hope that Linc’s technology might work out this time.

But so far Linc’s technology hasn’t worked out elsewhere. In Queensland, Australia, where they have experimented with similar projects, the company was charged with causing significant environmental harm. The Queensland Department of Environment and Natural Heritage prohibited them from conducting further underground coal gasification projects because of their inability to decommission and clean-up their sites. So far, Linc has been unable to satisfy restoration and clean-up requirements in Australia, and nearby landowners refer to the project as the “Linc Stink.” EPA was aware of Linc’s regulatory troubles in their home country, but granted the aquifer exemption for the Wyoming project anyway.

Even in the U.S., underground coal gasification has had a rocky track record. Past projects in Wyoming, including the Hoe Creek project in Campbell County, have contaminated aquifers, leaving governments with multi-million dollar clean-up bills. But now, Linc wants to try again, and has some serious political power in its attorneys – former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal and former Attorney General Bruce Salzburg.

Setting aside the technological and environmental risks, there is overwhelming evidence that commercialization of underground coal gasification in the U.S. is uneconomic. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates recoverable reserves of natural gas at 2,431 trillion cubic feet – enough to meet current demand for 75 years. Little wonder that natural gas prices in the U.S. have plummeted and are projected by the International Monetary Fund to remain flat for at least the next five years. At these prices, underground coal gasification is not viable. It requires more extensive drilling than conventional gas production, with multiple injection wells, separate production wells, and monitoring wells that must be duplicated as the underground burn progresses laterally. Moreover, the process incurs added costs of continuous high-pressure air injection, syngas cleanup, and water treatment to attempt aquifer restoration, which has failed in Australia.

EPA’s decision to grant this aquifer exemption on such questionable grounds sets a dangerous precedent. The sacrifice of a share of Wyoming’s valuable, essential and dwindling groundwater for an unproven and experimental project by a foreign company is not worth the risk.

— Bob LeResche and his wife own a ranch and raise heirloom vegetables in the Powder River Basin. He serves on the board for Powder River Basin Resource Council.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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  1. The EPA’s lack of a backbone on this issue is only equally alarming as the state’s enthusiasm to throw away precious drinking water at the slightest whim of industry. Especially to a company with a questionable track record. Who suffers in this deal? Wyoming citizens, while a foreign corporation profits (or doesn’t, because their methods are likely not viable).

  2. The EPA’s lack of a backbone on this issue is only equally alarming as the state’s enthusiasm to throw away precious drinking water at the slightest whim of industry. Especially to a company with a questionable track record. Who suffers in this deal? Wyoming citizens, while a foreign corporation profits (or doesn’t, because their methods are likely not viable).