New Energy Technology Leaves Landowners Worried

Why wait millions of years for natural gas to form deep underground when you can produce it yourself in a few months? A Colorado company says it has a way to reinvigorate natural gas wells and make them flow again. Luca Technologies says its methods will avoid most of the high costs and the environmental damage inherent in modern drilling. Wyoming is enthusiastically supporting the company, but landowners are skeptical and don't want the state to gamble with the aquifer that provides drinking water for them and their livestock.

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Now, to some applied science. It's a new approach to producing natural gas, an approach that claims to be low risk and low-cost. And that's at a time when the Gulf oil spill and the Japanese nuclear accident have reminded us of the dangers of energy development.

As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren explains, one U.S. company says it can reinvigorate depleted natural gas wells and make them flow again.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: These days, when companies drill for natural gas, each well usually requires advanced technology and costs millions of dollars.

Luca Technologies says it can avoid most of that expense and the environmental damage that comes from modern drilling techniques. It does that by replenishing the stores of gas that it took Earth millions of years to create.

Mr. BOB CAVNAR (CEO, Luca Technologies): We can actually generate gas in real time.

SHOGREN: Bob Cavnar is Luca's CEO. He says the company adds a proprietary concoction of vitamins, minerals, yeast and a variety of chemicals to water. It injects this into worn-out methane wells. This wakes up the tiny organisms that create gas.

Mr. CAVNAR: These microbes eat these nutrients, eat these food additives and then their waste product is pure methane.

SHOGREN: Cavnar says recharging a well takes about a month and costs only about $5,000.

Mr. CAVNAR: The great thing about this technology is that we're going back into existing wells. So we drill no new wells, we don't lay any new pipelines, we can restore old infrastructure. So the cost basis of us producing gas is much, much lower than it is for a conventional player.

SHOGREN: Reinvigorated wells produce at a slower rate than newly drilled ones, but Cavnar says they could keep producing for a very long time.

Wyoming State Senator Kit Jennings says what excites him about the technology is that it could keep Wyoming's depleting coal bed methane wells in business for decades.

State Senator KIT JENNINGS (Republican, Wyoming): I've looked at some data, and it's mind boggling. If everything works the way they say it will work, the Powder River Basin of Wyoming could turn in to be one of the largest gas-producing areas in the world. If it does what they say it's going to do, it will keep Wyoming in revenue for a very long time.

SHOGREN: Jennings says that's why he promoted a bill to green light Luca's production. Wyoming has no state income taxes. It uses oil and gas revenues to pay for schools and other public services.

Some ranchers who live near coal bed methane wells are skeptical. Eric Barlow is a rancher and a veterinarian. He gets the science behind real time gas production. He sees it happen in cows all the time. But he suspects the company is not telling the whole story.

Dr. ERIC BARLOW: The coal seam is going to belch the gas, and that's what they want. But there's other products down in that coal seam that these microbes are going to produce as well, and I want that quantified. I want to know what bugs are down there so that we know if some of those are issues or not.

SHOGREN: Barlow doesn't like the idea of a company injecting stuff into the ground water that his family and livestock use. He says accidentally polluting it would be very easy, but cleaning it up would be a massive challenge.

Dr. BARLOW: Especially when we're talking about something as big as an underground aquifer.

SHOGREN: Jill Morrison is a rancher and environmental activist with the local group Powder River Basin Research Council. She also has lots of questions.

Ms. JILL MORRISON (Powder River Basin Resource Council): Exactly what's being injected, exactly how it's functioning, what is the baseline of the water, what's the baseline of the aquifer, and was it really increasing gas production? I mean, we don't have any data on any of that.

SHOGREN: Luca does list on its website the ingredients it uses to revive the wells, but that doesn't comfort Morrison.

Ms. MORRISON: Because if you just look up some of those compounds, they're not as benign as they make it sound. I mean, there's a lot of acids and a lot of salts. I don't know what happens when you mix them all together either.

SHOGREN: Luca's Cavnar says the ranchers have nothing to fear.

Mr. CAVNAR: We are using food grade nutrients in very small trace amounts that are then consumed by the microbial communities that are in the coals. None of the tests that we've performed, and we've performed hundreds of these tests, have shown that the ground water is degraded at all.

SHOGREN: Wyoming regulators hope to start handing out permits next fall. Luca already is buying wells in Alabama and wants to branch out into New Mexico and across Appalachia too.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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