Coalbed methane reclamation activities in the Powder River Basin, Wyoming: social and policy dimensions of environmental legacy management

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


The United States is producing more oil and natural gas than ever before. Sites of production are contributing to the known land-use phenomenon of energy sprawl, though little is known about how these sites will be reclaimed and how legacy effects will be governed and managed. Reclamation returns degraded energy landscapes to some productive capacity in order to avoid permanent environmental harm. Thus far, the technical aspects of reclamation have been the topic of most research while the human dimensions are under-studied. This research draws attention to the social and political dimensions of environmental legacy management. A period of coalbed methane development in the Powder River Basin, Wyoming (1999-2009) provides an instructive case study to investigate the legacy effects of energy resource development. After a decade of coalbed methane production, about 5,700 orphaned wells remained without viable industry operators to fund and manage well-plugging and reclamation. This dissertation uses a qualitative case study approach including document analysis, policy analysis, and forty semi-structured interviews with local surface owners, attorneys, state and federal regulators, local government officials, and industry personnel. Contextual research revealed that management of post-production oil and gas is a highly complex governance challenge made more complicated by the split estate property regime that characterizes the American West. Empirical research found that environmental legacy issues are exacerbated by 'private participation'. Applying a framework tied to the concept of social license to operate, investigation of surface owner-industry relations revealed that individuals played a critical role in decision-making processes. Surface owner's private participation resulted in decisions to forgo reclamation and integrate CBM-related infrastructure into ranching operations, therefore contributing to the scale and extent of environmental legacies. This dissertation also found that an adaptive, or 'learn as you go', policy approach in Wyoming enabled cost-shifting mechanisms to gain foothold, creating serious long-term environmental costs. Three specific cost-shifting mechanisms for CBM were identified: regulatory misalignment, overadaptation to the oil and gas industry, and industry bankruptcy. Together this dissertation highlights the importance of studying the social and political dimensions of post-production oil and gas activities for more effective environmental legacy management.




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