Coal and Coalbed Methane in Montana: Past, Present, and Future

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Coal is the backbone of Montana’s energy economy. At 119 billion tons, Montana leads the U.S. in demonstrated coal reserves. Each year Montana produces 45 million tons of low-sulfur coal from 4 strip mines and 1 underground mine, ranking it 6th among the states. Of this production, 25% is used locally to produce electricity in Montana, the balance is shipped primarily to coal-fired power plants in mid-western states. Since the late 1990s, coalbed methane (CBM) has created value from Montana’s deeper coal deposits. Several factors controlled the trajectory of CBM development in Montana, including geology, produced-water management requirements, and market forces. The current number of producing CBM wells in Montana is less than 10% of the peak in 2008. Coalbeds are also important aquifers in eastern Montana. For more than 40 years, the MBMG has monitored groundwater changes associated with coal/CBM development.

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Elizabeth Meredith joined the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology in 2007 after completing her Ph.D. in Geology at the University of Wyoming. Stationed in the Billings Branch Office, she works on a wide range of hydrogeologic questions specific to the semi-arid environment of eastern Montana. Since 2009, she has directed the MBMG’s long-term groundwater monitoring program around coal and coalbed methane development in southeastern Montana.