CSU Expert Says Environment Could Suffer From New Energy Production Method

Columbus, GA - Up to 30 aquatic species could be eliminated within 20 years from river systems that continually experience overflow caused by Coal Bed Methane (CBM) extraction sites, says James Gore, PhD., a globally recognized expert in water resources management.

Gore, an environmental science professor at Columbus State University (Ga.) who serves on a United Nations scientific advisory panel on water resources, said the long-term threat would affect up to 80 percent of the fish and other organisms that thrive in shallow water habitats for feeding and cover. Gore bases his projection on his recent study and computer models of river systems in Montana, and in Wyoming where an expanding number of CBM extraction sites each discharge as much as 17,000 gallons of salt water daily, and 60-to-80-percent of this discharge finds its way back into nearby rivers and streams. The resulting periodic overflow is affecting species such as the already endangered Western Silvery Minnow.

Gore will present his research and opinions at the 10th International Petroleum Environmental Conference Nov. 11-14 in Houston. Conference organizers invited him to "be the 'skunk at the party,'" said Gore. While CBM extraction has attracted a great deal of optimism, industry leaders want to know the environmental price to be paid, he explained.

The relatively new energy production method of extracting methane from coal beds is viewed by the energy industry and some in government as a silver lining in a cloud of rising energy costs and dependence on foreign oil. The process that originated in the late 1980s in Alabama and southern Colorado recently has been refined and promoted as a clean and cost-efficient means to supplement U.S. energy demands. It provides 5 percent (and growing) of the nation's natural gas. The northern Great Plains has become a primary region for production – specifically Wyoming where officials project 51,000 extraction sites in operation by 2010.

However, environmentalists and scientists, such as Gore, have raised concerns about the impact related to water systems, starting with both groundwater aquifers and rivers and streams. Methane extraction from coal requires drawing groundwater which is discharged, as salt water, onto the surrounding ground and into nearby river systems. Issues of concern revolve around potential long-term consequences such as aquifer depletion, soil degradation and land erosion; and as Gore has brought to the forefront: the river habitat elimination caused by overflow. For example, the increased volume of water flow disrupts the shallow water habitats that are vital to elements of the river system's food chain, such as snails, shrimp, worms and insect larvae; and ultimately, for schools of newborn fish which feed upon those organisms, Gore said.

"Based on the increase in flow volume alone, we're looking at the elimination of 20-30 species over the course of 20 years where the process is applied," he said.

The implications range from negatively effecting recreational fishing (Industry officials and proponents, though, have proposed developing fish-stocked reservoirs filled with the discharged water that would be open for public fishing.) to the continued deterioration of the ecological integrity of the planet, Gore added. "The question (industry and government officials) have to consider is: 'Is this degree of ecological destabilization a worthwhile trade-off?'"

The question is presently before officials in Montana where CBM extraction is on hold while an environmental impact statement is being re-written and litigation is being addressed. Montana can view Wyoming as a source of reference where the opposition is lobbying for stricter regulation on the industry. Gore, along with several other noted experts in the field, identified a key error in an impact statement by the Bureau of Land Management that preceded the current CBM industry boom in the state. The bureau estimated that just 20 percent of the discharge goes into nearby river systems; however, Gore said his subsequent study reveals the figure to be 60-80 percent. In order to convince the bureau to correct the figure in its official statement, Gore and two of his graduate assistants Torrey Knight and Tracy Ferring recently drafted and sent a 10-page letter that documents their study and findings to the bureau.

Both Ferring and Knight helped Gore conduct the Wyoming river study. Presently 25 graduate students in CSU's Environmental Science Master's Degree Program are engaged in various commissioned studies directed by Gore and supported by a combined $1.5 million in grants. Current projects include rivers in Virginia, Florida and Georgia.

Gore is greatly familiar with the Wyoming and Montana river systems from which he conducted several studies as a University of Montana graduate student and doctoral candidate during the 1970s.

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Contact: James Gore, (706) 568-2067; E-mail: gore_james@ColumbusState.edu