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Coalbed Methane Industry Eyes Reservation Waters

Throughout Wyoming and the West, communities are facing devastating impacts to their water, land and quality of life because of Coalbed Methane technology.

An eight-acre wastewater pond and five test wells for coalbed methane appeared this spring in the southeastern corner of the Wind River Reservation. Devon Energy Corporation, a large oil and gas company based in Oklahoma, received permission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to dig the pond and sink the test wells, all without performing any environmental assessment of potential impacts. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is set to allow Devon, Inc. to drill 15 more test wells, still without any public disclosure of impacts to the land, waters, wildlife and people of the Wind River Reservation. And the pond and test wells are just the beginning. If Devon gets permission from the BIA and Environmental Protection Agency, 100 coalbed methane wells could be drilled in the area.

The Joint Business Council of the Arapaho and Shoshone Tribes (JBC) is wisely taking a hard look at the company’s plan. In the past, the JBC has not allowed coalbed methane development because of unacceptable impacts to Tribal lands, waters, wildlife, vegetation and soils. The wisdom of the JBC’s decision not to rush into this new realm of oil and gas extraction has become more evident with each passing year. Throughout Wyoming and the West, communities are facing devastating impacts to their water, land and quality of life because of this new technology.

What Else Is Wind River Alliance Working On?
• Advocating for, restoration of, and tolerance towards, native species in the watershed, including buffalo, wolves and grizzly bears.
• Hosting visit of InterTribal Bison Cooperative experts to discuss buffalo restoration for a free-ranging Tribal herd.
• Ensuring restoration and protection of culturally important riparian habitat and vegetation like cottonwoods and willows—which are critical to culture and religion—and chokecherry, gooseberry, currants, and serviceberry—which are critical to traditional diet and subsistence.
• Advocating for permission for Tribal members to gather subsistence foods and culturally significant plants and objects on State- and Federally-owned lands.
• Protecting cultural sites along waterways.

Water Quality and Quantity Impacts Unacceptable for Wind River Reservation Coalbed methane development is a relatively new oil and gas extraction technique that causes serious impacts to surface and ground water. Like all gas drilling, methane extraction causes numerous surface impacts including constructing miles of roads and pipelines, well pads, and compressor stations. All of these activities fragment and destroy wildlife habitat and create noise and air pollution. In addition to these impacts, coalbed methane requires the “dewatering” of coal seams to allow the gas to migrate to the surface. This dewatering process causes significant impacts in semi-arid areas like the Wind River Reservation. It is not uncommon for each coalbed methane well to pump out 15,000 gallons of groundwater per day. This volume of water depletes aquifers, lowers the water table, and causes serious erosion and increased stream sedimentation.

The quality of the by-product water is also of concern it is often high in salts, particularly sodium. The high salt content of the waste water has known negative impacts to soils, aquatic life, vegetation and surface water quality. The soils of the Wind River Reservation already are crusted white from increased alkalinity in some heavily irrigated areas. Wind River soils are highly vulnerable to further salt deposits from coalbed methane wastewater.

The waters of the Wind River Reservation are precious. The plants, wildlife and soils are the lifeblood of our communities. JBC has wisely refused coalbed methane development in the past. Today, the wisdom of that decision is even more obvious, given the demonstrated impacts of coalbed methane in Wyoming and throughout the West.

WRA will be hosting a training on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for Wind River citizens to learn how to make their voices heard. Stay tuned by regularly visiting our website.