At issue is Brisbane, Australia-based Linc Energy Ltd.’s novel method of extracting deep-underground coal without actually having to mine it. Linc’s demonstration project — located in Campbell County, Wyo., in the heart of the coal-rich Powder River Basin — would instead burn it below ground to turn it into gas.
The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality gave Linc preliminary approval to pollute an aquifer within the so-called Fort Union formation last year.
In response, several environmental groups — including the Sierra Club, Powder River Basin Resource Council and Western Organization of Resource Councils — expressed concern to EPA Region 8 Administrator Shaun McGrath over the project’s potential environmental effects and Wyoming’s approval process.
“The aquifer cannot be exempted from regulation because it contains high quality ground water that could be used as a future drinking water source, and Linc’s project runs a high risk of contaminating this water,” they wrote.
“Additionally,” wrote the groups, “Wyoming did not allow public comment or a hearing on these important issues as required by federal law.”
Late last month, McGrath told DEQ Director Todd Parfitt that EPA would not consider the state’s approval to exempt the aquifer from Safe Drinking Water Act protections until it holds a new public hearing on the question.
“The EPA will wait to make a decision on this aquifer exemption request until after the WDEQ completes its additional public process and forwards all comments, a response to comments, its decision and any other documents associated with the public participation process related to the Linc Energy aquifer exemption request,” McGrath told DEQ in a Jan. 28 letter.
Aquifer exemptions are usually granted to companies that want to pollute underground water resources that are already degraded and are also not drinking water sources.
But the environmental groups said in a news release that the aquifer in question contained “good quality water” and that the Fort Union formation was an “important and commonly used” water source in the Powder River Basin.
The groups also said the underground coal gasification process, often called UCG, generated carcinogens including benzene, ethylbenzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Plus, they say an independent scientific panel in Australia cautioned the Queensland government against approving new UCG projects until Linc could prove successful aquifer cleanup and decommissioning.
Linc CEO Peter Bond addressed the issue in a project update last year. He said the independent panel findings recognized the company’s “world leading and cutting edge technology, its approach to site selection, design, engineering, construction and operation of UCG gasifier panels.”
Bond said the approval process in Wyoming has taken several years. He called it “one of the most thorough and rigorous assessments” of Linc’s UCG technology, including the company’s “decommissioning methodology.”
Bond also said progress with Wyoming regulators means the company’s decommissioning plan “meets high standards necessary to mitigate against the risk of environmental harm.”
Linc touts UCG as a means of using coal reserves that are too deep to mine through conventional methods. The company says steel casing and cement would protect water resources from the process after initial drilling. The gas would then be used for enhanced oil recovery.
The Powder River Basin has been popular with companies wanting to access its coal reserves in nonconventional ways. In recent years, for example, there have been attempts to generate methane by injecting nutrients into coal seams.
Luca Technologies Inc. called off its methane farming plans in 2012 amid permitting and financial hurdles. Centennial, Colo.-based Ciris Energy Inc. is still pursuing similar plans.