Coalbed Methane Rears Its Head Again in Coos County

U.S. Coalbed Methane Fields, 2009. Courtesy Energy Information Administration

There’s interest once again in coalbed methane development in Coos County, as there has been on and off for decades. Coalbed methane (CBM) is a kind of natural gas extracted from coal seams. Typically, production begins with pumping water out of the coal to allow the gas to escape. It requires drilling through the cap above the seam to release the water, but the well can be stimulated with conditioned water, which is mixed with undisclosed chemicals, sand and nitrogen. The ancient water and the conditioned water (together called “produced water”) are pumped back to the surface, and the gas follows the water upward. Methane is the main component of natural gas from CBM production.

Coalbed methane extraction in Coos County most recently came up in about 2004-2007. At that time the company was Methane Energy Corporation. They were acquired by Westport Energy in about 2007, and there were other companies later. The current owner is Curzon Energy, a UK company, whose local subsidiary is Coos Bay Energy. The company has leases on 16,000 acres of private land, and 29,000 acres of county land.They are currently testing five old wells, which can be 2,000 to 4,000 feet deep. If the Phase I testing is positive, the company plans to develop 58 wells in the area in Phase 2, and up to 400 new wells in Phase 3. Average well spacing would be 100 acres.

Disposal of the produced water is a central problem in CBM development, because thousands of gallons of it are pumped each day from each well. The induced chemicals often include carcinogens. The water can be reinjected underground, but CBM developers in Coos County have sought sought a National Permit Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from the Department of Environmental Quality. This permit would allow the company to discharge the produced water to Davis Slough after being put through an approved water treatment system.

The Department of Environmental Quality originally issued an NPDES permit for produced water reinjection in 2007 to Methane Energy Corporation. It was valid for five years. In 2012 Westport, the new owner of the wells and the transferred permit, applied for the required DEQ permit renewal. Their complete application triggered the DEQ statute that provides an indefinite administrative extension of the existing permit until DEQ can write a renewal permit. Thus far, Curzon has not applied to DEQ for transfer of this permit to them, as they don’t need it for the well testing they are currently undertaking. They are not discharging anything to waters of the state. So far the permit has never been used, by Westport or any previous permit-holder.

DEQ will eventually write a renewal permit, but it is not currently on the speeded-up list for DEQ issuance. Change in technology from the 2007 permit, or change in water quality standards, would move it up in line. The renewal permit, when it is eventually drafted, will have a new Evaluation Report, and will have a new public comment period prior to issuance.

If Curzon decides that commercial production is warranted, they must apply to the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) for permits to begin drilling-pad construction, well drilling and, ultimately, site reclamation. The DOGAMI permitting process is quite technical, and under state law does not have a public involvement component. The public involvement comes primarily via the local land use process.

Unfortunately, Oregon’s land use laws do not protect forestlands from energy development as well as they could. If Curzon proposes to sink new wells, they must apply to Coos County. However, the Forest Zone and Forest Mixed Use zones in Coos County (Article 4.6) allow “subject to applicable development standards” the “exploration for and production of geothermal, gas, oil and other associated hydrocarbons, including the placement and operation of compressors, separators and other customary production equipment for an individual well adjacent to the well head.” (Sec. 4.6.100 (p)). There are no current applications relating to coalbed methane that we are aware of at this time, though Curzon has stated in its press releases and investor profiles that they plan to begin commercial production in the second quarter of 2018 if the well testing pans out. Curzon has also not built the water treatment facilities that would be required for discharge into Davis Slough.

ORCA is watching the progress of the Curzon well testing closely, as are many Coos County residents. This article will be updated as new information becomes available. For further information, please contact Executive Director Cameron La Follette.

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