MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer BILLINGS (AP)
A proposal for more than 18,000 coalbed methane wells in southeast Montana could exceed some air quality standards, but government officials said they will monitor pollution levels and intervene if necessary to ensure that does not happen. Meanwhile, a final decision on the development proposed for Montana's Powder River Basin is not expected until late 2009. That's a year later than a previous schedule offered by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Coal-bed methane, or CBM, is a type of natural gas found in coal seams. More than 20,000 CBM wells have been dri l led in the Wyoming portion of the Powder River Basin in the last decade. Development on the Montana side of the basin has been tied up by litigation from conservationists and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Th e Bu r e a u o f La n d Management air quality analysis released Thursday stems from a court order that the agency study potential environmental damages before drilling can proceed. The analysis showed plans for up to 18,255 wells could cause nitrogen dioxide and particulate emissions to exceed thresholds meant to protect public health. Also, visibility standards could be exceeded 19 days out of the year on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. That means a haze would cover all or parts of the reservation on those days. Tribal representatives did not immediately return calls seeking comment. However, a BLM natural resource specialist said that because the development is expected to take place over the next 20 years, state and federal officials could step in if needed before pollution levels top the standards. The pol lut ion would be caused primarily by compressors used to pipe methane away from drilling sites. Albano said that if pollution started to approach the public health threshold, of f icials coul d require companies to use more advanced equipment that causes less pollution. "We'd be able to determine if we indeed need to look at any additional mitigation and be able to implement that without having to say everything's on hold," he said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which has been following the BLM's planning process said in May that it wanted more detailed information on air quality impacts. On Thursday, Joyel Dhieux with the EPA's regional office in Denver said the agency was reviewing the new BLM analysis. Public comment on the document will be taken through March 12. All environmental studies on the coal-bed methane plan are expected to be done by next summer. The BLM could make a final decision on the drilling plan by late 2009, said BLM planner Mary Bloom.