As of April 2012, there are 5,537 coalbed methane (CBM) – aka natural gas – wells operating in the Black Warrior River watershed. The first drilling for coalbed methane in Alabama occurred in the Black Warrior Basin in the 1970s. Initially, this practice served as a way to degasify coal seams prior to mining them, reducing the potential for explosions in mines. The gas was simply vented into the atmosphere. In the early 1980s, when it was realized natural gas has tremendous energy potential, drilling for commercial sales really took off. The Black Warrior Basin has the longest development history of any coalbed methane reserve in the United States.
Tens of thousands of acres in the Black Warrior Basin are leased for drilling wells to access coal seams where the gas is trapped, creating a massive network of roads, well pads, and pipelines. Erosion from these areas is a documented source of sedimentation, choking streams and reservoirs throughout the basin. The extraction of coalbed methane involves a process known as hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”). Hydraulic fracturing forces a pressurized fluid mixture including water, acid, surfactant, gel, chemicals, and sand into the earth around coal seams, ranging anywhere from 350 – 2,500 feet deep. The fluids create underground fissures in targeted coal seams and surrounding rock and shale, and phenolic resin-coated sand holds the fissures open, allowing natural gas to flow toward the surface.
In the Black Warrior Basin, coalbed methane drilling targets the Pennsylvanian Pottsville Formation, which is part of an unconfined aquifer and the Cretaceous outcrop, which is associated with high groundwater salinity. Groundwater contamination is a major concern for people living in rural areas near CBM drilling operations. We have received numerous reports from people whose well water has gone bad. If you have experienced a decrease in well water quality, please contact us.
Wastewater from the drilling process, called produced water, is commonly stored in open, lined pits. Some of this water is re-used. The state of Alabama allows CBM operators to discharge produced water to both area streams and the river as well as to wastewater treatment plants. Drilling in the Cretaceous outcrop involves deposits of ancient saline water from long ago that must be extracted and discarded, which means salty water is being discharged into the river and its tributaries – our source of fresh water.
Coalbed methane, or natural gas, is known as a clean burning fuel. However, when considering the full cycle costs of this form of energy – from drilling to waste disposal to consumption – it’s not so clean after all.
To see a Google map of CBM operations’ footprint in the Warrior Coal Field, click here.
Map showing coalbed methane fields in the Black Warrior River watershed. Source: Geological Survey of Alabama’s website:
Coalbed methane well and roads in the foreground. Miller Steam Plant in the background. (Jefferson County, Alabama) Photo by Nelson Brooke.
Coalbed methane wastewater ponds on the Black Warrior River. (Tuscaloosa County, Alabama) Photo by Nelson Brooke. Flight provided by
For more information on this subject, click on any of the following links:
Organizations working on natural gas fracking
Wild South – Petition Against Oil and Gas Leasing on Alabama’s National Forests
EarthWorks – Hydraulic Fracturing 101
EarthWorks – Hydraulic Fracturing
EarthWorks – Oil & Gas Accountability Project
Energy Justice Network
Clean Water Network – Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act
Wilderness Society – Hydraulic Fracturing: An Unregulated Danger to Our Nation’s Drinking Water
Natural Resources Defense Council – Don’t Get Fracked!: Steps to Keep You and Your Family Safe from Drilling
Natural Resources Defense Council – Recommendations to EPA for their fracking study
Natural Resources Defense Council – Letter in Support of Reform of Laws Governing Onshore Oil and Gas Exploration and Production
Natural Resources Defense Council – Energy & Public Lands
ProPublica – Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat
ProPublica – From Gung-Ho to Uh-Oh: Charting the Government’s Moves on Fracking
Halliburton Watch – Energy Bill
Fracking Resource Guide
Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform – Contradictions in EPA Statements on Hydraulic Fracturing
Union of Concerned Scientists – EPA Findings on Hydraulic Fracturing Deemed “Unsupportable”
Alabama Oil & Gas Board
Alabama Oil & Gas Board – Oil & Gas Information
Drilling Waste Management Information System – Alabama Regulations
Geological Survey of Alabama – Coal Systems
Geological Survey of Alabama – Coalbed Methane Research
EPA – Coalbed Methane Extraction (CBM)
EPA – Coalbed Methane Outreach Program (CMOP)
EPA – Coalbed Methane Extraction: Detailed Study Report
EPA – The Black Warrior Basin
EPA – Hydraulic Fracturing
EPA – Hydraulic Fracturing Research Study
EPA – Underground Injection Control Program
EPA – Executive Summary: Evaluation of Impacts to Underground Sources
EPA – Characteristics of Coalbed Methane Production and Associated Hydraulic Fracturing Practices
EPA – U.S. Methane Emissions 1990 – 2020: Inventories, Projections, and Opportunities for Reductions
U.S. Geological Survey – Assessment of Undiscovered Carboniferous Coal-Bed Gas Resources of the Appalachian Basin and Black Warrior Basin Provinces, 2002
U.S. Geological Survey – Water Produced with Coal-Bed Methane
U.S. Geological Survey – High Salt Concentrations in Water Resulting from Coal-bed Natural Gas Production Harmful to Aquatic Life
U.S. Department of Energy – Regulatory Issues Affecting Management of Produced Water from Coal Bed Methane Wells
National Energy Technology Laboratory – Natural Gas Resources
National Energy Technology Laboratory – Produced Water Management Information System
National Energy Technology Laboratory – Water Management Strategies for Improved Coalbed Methane Production in the Black Warrior Basin
Southeast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership (SECARB) – Black Warrior Basin Coal Seam Project
Coalbed Methane Association of Alabama
Energen Resources Corporation – Black Warrior Basin
Walter Energy – Natural Gas
Black Warrior Methane
Geomet Operating Company, Inc.
Kinder Morgan (acquired El Paso Production Company on 5/24/12) – Southern Natural Gas
Robinson’s Bend Operating II, LLC – Constellation Energy
Halliburton Energy Services – 6/9/10/ Comments to EPA on Hydraulic Fracturing
Alabama Hat Trick
“Provisions Benefiting Energy Industry Are Folded into Bill: Drilling Technique Pioneered
by Halliburton—That Might Pollute Water—Would No Longer Require Special Permit”
EPA says ‘water drilling’ for coalbed gas not a threat
Montana Pollution Rules Draw Federal Objections
N.Y. Assembly Approves Fracking Moratorium
Hydraulic fracturing scheduled by Energen in Alabama attracts both profit potential and green-group ire
Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush
A Pot of Gold – or a Fracking Disaster Waiting to Happen?
Could Shale Gas Power the World?
Major fracking spill happening now in Pennsylvania
As Focus On Fracking Sharpens, Fuel Worries Grow
The Real Story About the Risks of Fracking
There is a middle ground in gas well fracturing controversy
Report ties ‘fracking’ to W.Va. well contamination
EPA sounds alarm on fracking in Wyoming
EPA: Fracking chemicals likely tainted Wyoming drinking water
Louisiana’s Proposed Regulation for Disclosure of Fracking Water Composition Appears on Track for Enactment
The Fracking Industry’s War On The New York Times – And The Truth