Coal-bed methane drilling up for debate again

Farmers and ranchers are again expressing fears that drilling for coal-bed methane could contaminate groundwater.

Farmers and ranchers are again expressing fears that drilling for coal-bed methane could contaminate groundwater.

The Alberta government is holding a month-long series of public meetings in south and central Alberta after approving new rules and regulations for the development.

Coal-bed methane is a form of natural gas extracted from coal seams. Some landowners have complained that water wells and groundwater are being contaminated by the drilling. The industry is expected to expand in Alberta as companies look for new sources of natural gas.

On Thursday night, farmers and ranchers flocked to a meeting in Strathmore to raise concerns.

Farmer Roy Clark says his county expects to see as many as 6,500 new coal-bed methane wells in the next year and a half.

"In our area there hasn't been a problem, but I guess you're always vigilant."

Some at the meeting said they have heard of people with so much methane in their water they can light it on fire. And others cited the state of Wyoming, where drilling allegedly contaminated water resources.

Brad Ledig, a spokesman for Alberta Environment, says methane can occur naturally in water that's near coal seams. He said landowners don't have to worry about coal-bed methane drilling.

"There's just a big range between the depth that people drill their wells at versus wells that are drilled for coal-bed methane."

Norma LaFonte of the Wheatland Surface Rights Action Group said she's not convinced the province has her best interests at heart. She wants Alberta to do research before allowing so much drilling.

"There's a lot of money on the table for all Albertans and that's a good thing for Alberta, but it shouldn't happen on the backs of a few people, and it seems to be going that way."

In May, the Alberta government said it would adopt most of the recommendations in a final report of a coal-bed methane advisory committee.

At the time, the environment minister said he would shut down any well immediately if it was determined that coal-bed methane drilling was affecting nearby wells and groundwater, but added he wasn't convinced exploration is the cause of complaints of contaminated water.

The new regulations went into effect May 1 and are being applied to new licence requests. Baseline samples from water wells within 600 to 800 metres of the gas well site will be tested and posted on a public website.

Six months after a well is completed, another test must be done and the results compared. Companies will be billed between $2,000 and $4,000 for each test.