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Coalbed Natural Gas and Water Management: Water Appropriation, Water Quality, and Water Conflicts

Holly J. Franz, Rebecca W. Watson, Proceedings of 47th Annual Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Institute (2001)

In the arid West, waterits availability and qualityis the third rail of natural resource projects. Touch water in the wrong way and your project will die. The extraction of minerals frequently involves the need to dewater the mineral in order to [17-3] safely and efficiently mine the ore body or to protect surface or groundwater from contamination.1 The production of coalbed natural gas (CBNG) is inextricably combined with waterto release the gas, the coal aquifer must be dewatered or depressurized by pumping groundwater. The management of the groundwater produced is the key environmental issue to be addressed by regulators and CBNG operators. CBNG operators, like their counterparts in the coal and hard-rock industries, must address two broad legal issues when handling produced water. First, what are the necessary water rights that an operator must obtain in order to dewater the aquifer and what provisions are there in state law to protect existing water rights? Second, how can the produced water be managed in a manner that complies with the federal Clean Water Act and state law and protects the environment in a manner that allows public acceptance of the mineral project? This paper focuses on these issues in the context of CBNG development in the West. While the legal requirements under federal water quality law are equally applicable to coal and hard-rock projects, there are