AEI Spotlight Report:
We are pleased to present here the first of a new series of reports on key sound-related issues. These Acoustic Ecology Institute Spotlight Reports are intended to provide a good introductory look at the sonic impacts of the issue at hand, and to provide links to resources for further information. Over time, some of these Spotlight Reports will expand into more comprehensive sections of our site, following developments as they occur.
This first Spotlight Report focuses on one of the most prevalent new threats to peace and quiet in the American West: Coalbed Methane Development. We thank Susan M. Romanella for her research on this important topic.
Note: While this report focuses on CBM development, the noise impacts of traditional oil
and natural gas development are somewhat similar. The Wyoming-based Oil and Gas
Accountability Project has collected a good set of resources on these more general
oil and gas noise issues. [WEBSITE]
"I got a huge compressor station two miles from my place. That thing runs 24 hours a day, and so do the company trucks. There’s no peace and quiet here anymore."
New Mexico rancher
Coalbed Methane Development:
A Jarring Soundprint on the American West
The oil and gas industry, foraging for new and unconventional energy sources, has turned the spotlight on coalbed methane (CBM). Formed by the natural conversion of plant detritus during coalification, coalbed methane can be extracted for use as natural gas. A variety of stakeholders are collaborating to unearth this “diamond in the rough” while benefiting from the financial cache found in worldwide coalbeds. It is no surprise that the unrelenting domestic and global demand for energy is driving these efforts. As we tap another natural resource, careful consideration of a mosaic of ensuing environmental challenges is in order.
Coalbed methane gas is a clean burning fossil fuel arguably considered a minor league player in its overall contribution to global warming and air pollution. Harvesting the gas requires relatively simple technology. Coalbed methane is gas held in the pores, cracks and spaces within coalbeds, pressurized by water. In order to extract the gas, drilling is required to release the large volumes of water that hold the gas in place within the coalbeds (called “dewatering”). Gas produced at individual wells is piped to a metering facility where the amount of production from each well is recorded. The natural gas then flows to a compressor station where the gas is compressed for shipment in a pipeline.[i] This process is aptly characterized by the North Dakota-based Badlands Conservation Alliance as a “pervasive, landscape scale industrialization.”
DRILLING FOR COALBED METHANE GAS
MSU Bozeman Montana Water Quality & Irrigation Management Homepage
As national energy demands and industry profits expand the reach of developers, a debate over CBM extraction has taken shape. Multiple problems and concerns are uniquely articulated by farmers, ranchers, landowners, regulatory agencies, federal, state and local governments, citizen groups, environmental activists, conservationists, tourists, and the oil and gas industry itself.[ii] Although objectionable noise is not the most salient environmental problem associated with CBM (a designation more readily accorded to the unconscionable levels of wasted water), there is noise and it is indeed disturbing. James Easton and George McVehil’s (McVehil-Monnett Associates, Inc.) research on air quality issues related to CBM sheds light upon the magnitude of development in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the attendant increase in noise. “Consider that many of the areas currently drilling for coalbed methane gas, and many others being considered for development, are in places that have seen only antelope, buffalo and domestic cattle as their tenants. Production sites require access for construction crews, operations and maintenance staff and the variety of vendors that must service the production facilities. All of these entities travel the network of unpaved roads that crisscross this previously undisturbed territory.”[iii] The potential scale of environmental impact is further quantified by the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC), who point out that CBM development in Montana alone would require constructing “ 9,000 to 27,000 miles of roads, and 27,917 to 83,727 miles of pipelines and utility corridors”.[iv]
Noise: CBM’s Uninvited Accomplice
Unlike sound, which is an integral feature of natural landscapes, human-induced noise pollution is a feature of CBM development. CBM technology “works the land,” yet this harvest comes at a cost to those who value the sense of well being that peace and quiet inspires. A desire to preserve the quiet refuge found in open, natural spaces is of paramount importance to many concerned about CBM development. Serenity of place at home or outdoors can hardly be found in the laboring of trucks and construction, drills, electric pumps, and compressors. Added to the incessant humming of well equipment, compressors are by far the noisiest aspect of CBM production.[v] According to Dr. J. Berton Fisher, professor of GeoSciences, University of Tulsa, “Depending upon wind direction, the roar of a field compressor can be heard three to four miles from the site. Near the compressor stations, people need to shout to make themselves heard over the sound of the engines.”[vi] The plight of residents, who are forced to close windows to shut out the noise of industry, rather than welcoming in the sounds of the land, speaks loudly about the pervasive nature of this issue.
LARGE COMPRESSOR STATION IN WYOMING
Photos provided by Jeff Blend, Montana Department of Environmental Quality
Along with aggravating human ears, CBM development is also a fledgling contributor to human encroachment on the animal world. Circumspect environmental stewardship warrants recognition and consideration of the effects of noise on wildlife. Dave Cornman, writing on the “Effects of Noise on Wildlife” for the Nature Sounds Society, explains that laboratory studies and limited field research have uncovered four major ways in which animals are adversely affected by noise pollution (listed in order of likely increasing importance in CBM fields):
- hearing loss, resulting from noise levels of 85 db or greater;
- masking, which is the inability to hear important environmental cues and animal signals;
- non-auditory physiological effects, such as increased heart rate and respiration and general stress reaction; and
- behavioral effects, which vary greatly between species and noise characteristics, resulting in, for example, abandonment of territory and lost reproduction.[vii]
If Cornman’s views are accurate, unmitigated CBM development portends alarming consequences for the delicate balances that sustain wildlife habitat. In the Rocky Mountains, CBM extraction takes place in the midst of habitat for pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and at-risk species including bald eagles, sage grouse, mountain plovers, and black-tailed prairie dogs.[viii] Humans bear direct responsibility for this noisy toll levied on the animal world. Although human beings can speak out about the annoyance of living with chronic noise, the measure of problems affecting the animal world is often belatedly recognized in a tragic aftermath. A full understanding of the residual effect, the soundprint, that CBM noise pollution stamps on our shared natural environment should recommend a more vigorous scientific inquiry.
Options: Silent Industry
Just as noise regulations vary by region and locale, what constitutes acceptable noise levels to key stakeholders also varies. Federal ownership of the mineral rights to land overrules a private property owner’s surface rights. As a result, compromises between the government, CBM developers and landowners over access to drilling typically include both economic recompense and environmental impact studies. The benefits of cooperation notwithstanding, the daily noise experience of residents living in close proximity to wellsites is vastly different from government and corporate executives negotiating the industry from afar. According to the NPRC, the Bureau of Land Management leased over half a million acres of “federal methane” in Montana without notifying the private surface owners. For as little as $2 and $3 per acre, methane companies have leased the right to enter a farmer or rancher's land, build roads, drill wells, and otherwise develop methane - without the landowner's permission.[ix] Furthermore, enforcement is compromised by the shrinking number of enforcement agents compared to the escalating number of wells.[x]
Even when noise levels do meet legal standards, the added cost of noise abatement technology may be viewed by gas producers as a value-added convenience rather than a necessity. Industry has not prioritized the integration of noise control technology into initial development models. However, escalating disputes between the strange bedfellows of landowners and developers have elevated the issue of noise control into a negotiating point. To wit, the April 2004 Western Governors Association’s Coalbed Methane Best Management Practices handbook clearly identifies noise as a problem.[xi] The handbook recommends preventing noise from the outset of development and provides suggestions to mitigate existing problems. Their recommendations include the use of engine mufflers, noise abatement structures, and hydraulic pumps to reduce both short and long term noise.
Engineering technology does exist to minimize and even silence the noise produced by drill pumps and compressors. Noise Solutions, Inc., an engineering company in Alberta, Canada, is one such company that has successfully utilized this technology to control industrial noise. According to Doug Walker, business development manager at Noise Solutions, Inc., “[Our] work, which runs the gamut from little wellsite compressors of only 40 or 50 HP to massive engines from 1500 HP to 5000 HP, has shown that even with major projects, silence for the landowners is achievable.”[xii] It would be a considerable achievement if the gas industry combined silencing technology at the outset of development not only as a “peace” offering for communities but also as an ecologically responsible choice. Serious, tangible commitment to creating the quietest possible soundprint would be a potent environmental statement.
Stories: Heard from the Field
There are significant environmental sequelae from the CBM extraction process: surface land and underground disruption, water management and atmospheric pollution, soil degradation and toxicity, ecosystem and wildlife habitat disturbance, human health hazards, aesthetic environmental injury, and noise. Across the great open ranges and rolling grasslands of the American West, road building, trucks, pipeline construction, well drilling, and CBM compressor stations are emitting a cacophony of noise. Some disturbances are short term: the rackety fits and starts of construction abate once the wells and stations are in place. Compressor stations, however, are a continuous source of disquiet, with engine sound traveling for miles in often heretofore pristine open space.
“A battalion of nine compressor stations, each sounding like a jet engine. The smaller installation in bottom right foreground is coalbed methane wells. Note the familiar landscape beneath the development. This is WY, and threatens to come to the Little Missouri National Grassland and its surrounding ranch communities.” Location: NE of Sheridan, WY[xiii]
The stories from landowners across the country share a common theme: this noise is changing their sense of self and place. Just chat with John Dewey, a Gillette, Wyoming landowner, whose 248 acre property houses five methane wells. When the eight compressors on his neighbor’s property start up, “It’s a hell of a scream,” says Dewey.[xiv]
In southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico, the San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) educates citizens about the noise associated with CBM development.[xv] Their brochure, “So, a Coalbed Methane Company Has Notified You that a Gas Well is Coming to Your Property,” educates landowners whose property is targeted for development about the 24-hour-a-day noise from non-soundproofed compressors. SJCA paints an alarming picture of ongoing well maintenance: “After the well is drilled, the gas company comes back regularly to rework the well with such procedures as cavitation, fracing, and flaring. These procedures can be loud and disruptive, can shake the ground so hard that your whole house vibrates, and can also be dangerous (i.e. can cause under- and above-ground fires). The procedure called “flaring” may cause jets of fire to shoot tens of feet into the air.”[xvi]
In 2003, Sierra News writer/editor Marilyn Berlin Snell visited New Mexico cattle rancher Chris Velasquez whose family land and way of life has been dramatically affected by CBM development. According to Velasquez, CBM wells have poisoned his cattle and area wildlife, threatened his water supply, caused soil erosion and noxious weed growth, and desecrated the natural beauty of the land. Snell describes Velasquez’s ordeal to her readers: “At the house, the noise is mostly from barking dogs, chickens, and a cousin who’s hammering away at a sunroom addition off Velasquez’s kitchen. But at night, when his house quiets down, he gets an unpleasant reminder of where he lives: "I got a huge compressor station two miles from my place," he says. "That thing runs 24 hours a day, and so do the company trucks. There’s no peace and quiet here anymore."[xvii]
Tolerance does reach a tipping point for some residents like Dave Bullach, where perhaps all of his frustrations coalesced into one extreme act. Reported in 2001 in the New York Times, “Dave Bullach, a welder who lives near Gillette, couldn't take it anymore. For two sleep deprived years, he endured the incessant yowl of a methane compressor, a giant pump that squeezes methane into an underground pipeline. There are thousands of these screaming machines in Wyoming, where neither state nor federal law regulates their noise. Mr. Bullach stormed out of his house at midnight with a rifle and shot at the compressor until a sheriff's deputy hauled him off to jail.”[xviii]
The quest to harness alternative energy sources has taken a toll on the lives of these individuals; the stress of CBM noise on their well-being is clear.
Coalbed Methane Development[xix]
Listening Ahead: The Future of Coalbed Methane Development
In the United States, major coal fields are located in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. Most are already under development. Across the border in Canada, Alberta and British Columbia face similar environmental challenges as CBM development looms. The Powder River Basin, spanning the southeast corner of Montana and crossing the border into northeastern Wyoming, displays a foreboding etching of CBM upon the land. This area boasts one of the largest deposits of coal in the world. The basin’s rangelands and rolling prairies are already freckled with a significant number of wells (23,205 wells January 2003) with projections to drill up to 66,000.[xx] As these well numbers multiply, concomitant noise levels will inevitably increase.
Noise is undoubtedly part of the footprint and soundprint of CBM development. As we step back to assess these marks, it becomes clear that a questionable environmental legacy is unfolding. While CBM production rattles the quiet of formerly peaceful open spaces, many of our citizens wonder if these audible pockmarks will become permanent scars.
"If you do coalbed methane wrong, it’s the last boom. You mine everything to get this one resource out - your scenery, your lifestyle, your solitude, your wildlife. The kinds of landscapes you’re going to be left with, they’re going to look like a carcass."[xxi]
Randy Udall, Community Office for Resource Efficiency, Aspen CO
Report written by
Susan M. Romanella
Research Associate, Acoustic Ecology Institute
Badlands Conservation Alliance
Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists
Coalbed Natural Gas Alliance
East of Huajatolla Citizens Alliance
High Country News
Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation
Northern Plains Resource Council
Oil and Gas Accountability Project
Powder River Basin Resource Council
Western Organization of Resource Councils
[xii] Doug Walker, personal communication
[xix] HCN photograph (top left); MSU/CBM Water Product Management Group Powerpoint Presentation “Coalbed Methane Background Information (2003) J. Bauder, et al. (top right) , Valle Vidal website photos http://www.vallevidal.org/realities.html - (bottom left and bottom right)