Underground Coal Burning Experiment Lacked Adequate Protest Period, EPA Says


The proposed UCG plant site in Wyoming.

The proposed UCG plant site in Wyoming.

The proposed UCG plant site in Wyoming.


Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) did not provide enough time for concerned citizens to protest an Australian company’s proposal to exempt a local aquifer from federal safe drinking water laws for an experimental coal project, and must now hold a public hearing about it, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Denver office said Wednesday.

According to a release from the Powder River Basin Resource Council, the EPA made the decision after the DEQ admitted that it had provided notice for public participation, but only after it had already decided to exempt the aquifer from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. DEQ also didn’t allow concerned landowners and citizens to comment at a November hearing about the exemption, Powder River said.

“DEQ is charged with the mission of protecting our natural resources and preventing pollution, and they should view citizens as the most important stakeholders in their decision-making process,” Powder River Organizer Jill Morrison said.

Australian company Linc Energy is seeking the exemption in order to build a plant for underground coal gasification (UCG), a largely untested method of getting at coal that is otherwise buried too deep to retrieve. The process, according to Forbes, “captures the imagination;” in order to access the too-deep coal, the process sets it on fire while it is still underground, injecting it with oxygen and water to create synthetic natural gas.

If approved, the plant would be the only one of its kind in the U.S. and it needs exemption from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act — the law that protects the quality of drinking water — to go forward. Local residents and environmental groups have been fighting the project, saying it is an untested process that only promises to contaminate their already dwindling water supply with deadly benzene. The Wyoming State Climate Office pegs its state as the fifth driest in the nation, citing “a near decade with warm temperatures and relatively little precipitation [that] has left us very vulnerable.”

The drilling for Linc’s proposed project would take place in the Fort Union Aquifer, which is frequently used to supply water for homes, ranches and municipalities. The portion of the aquifer that Linc wants to use for the project is currently not used for drinking water purposes, but Powder River has said the portion “contains good quality water that could be used as a future source of drinking or livestock water in the near future.”

A UCG project has not happened in the United States in almost two decades, as the last one caused benzene contamination in the area’s groundwater.

After the November hearing, the DEQ rejected residents’ protests by a six-to-one vote, effectively giving the okay to Linc Energy’s application for its “state research and development” license to drill thousands of feet into Wyoming’s portion of the Powder River Basin. The project only then needed the EPA’s final approval.

EPA representative Richard Mylott told Climate Progress in November that it would “thoroughly review technical information regarding resource production, extraction activity, and the adequacy of measures — both during and following production — to prevent the movement of contamination from the exempted production zone to underground sources of drinking water.”

Linc, which recently pulled out of its Australia test project because of regulatory agencies stalling them, has hired Wyoming’s former governor David Freudenthal to represent them in the permit proceedings. As the Democratic governor of the state, Freudenthal staunchly advocated for large federal investments in so-called “clean coal” technologies.

Freudenthal still deals with coal in a big way. He made $182,325 ($147,500 in cash and $34,825 in stock awards) in 2012 for serving on the board of Arch Coal, the second-largest coal company in the country. Fruedenthal still serves on the board, most recently buying 3,650 phantom securities from the company in October. In total, Freudenthal has bought 23,958 in Arch Coal securities at a current price of $4.11 per share, making his total direct interest in the company a little under $100,000.