Coalbed Natural Gas

Development of coalbed natural gas (CBNG), also called coalbed methane, began in Wyoming in the late 1970s, but did not boom until the 1990s, primarily in the Powder River Basin. Because of competition from unconventional gas reservoirs and lower natural gas prices, Wyoming CBNG production has steadily declined since 2010.

How is Coalbed Natural Gas Formed?

Environments rich in plant material such as swamps, estuaries, and marshes, were prolific in Wyoming during the Eocene Epoch (56–34 million years ago) and the Paleocene Epoch (66–56 million years ago). Time, heat, and pressure converted this organic material to coal. Coalbed natural gas formed in these coal seams by either biogenic or thermogenic processes.

Wyoming coalbed methane map
Wyoming coalbed methane map. [Credit: WSGS]

Biogenic: During the earliest stage of coalification (the process that turns plant detritus into coal), biogenic methane is generated as a byproduct of bacterial respiration. Aerobic bacteria (those that use oxygen in respiration) metabolize any free oxygen left in the plant detritus and the surrounding sediments. In fresh water environments, methane production begins immediately after the oxygen is depleted. Species of anaerobic bacteria (those that do not use oxygen) then reduce carbon dioxide and produce methane through anaerobic respiration. When the temperature of underground coal reaches and is maintained at approximately 122°F (50°C), biogenic methane is generated. By this point, two-thirds of the moisture has also been expelled, and the coal reaches a rank of subbituminous.

Thermogenic: After the temperature of a coal exceeds 122°F (50°C) due to the geothermal gradient and deep burial, thermogenic processes begin to generate additional carbon dioxide, nitrogen, methane, and water. At this point, the amount of hydrocarbons or volatile matter has increased and the coal reaches a rank of bituminous. When the temperature of the coal reaches 302°F (150°C), thermogenic production of methane is maximized.

Coalbed Natural Gas Extraction

In the Powder River Basin, most coalbed natural gas wells are completed open-hole. This method involves setting casing to the top of the target coalbed, under-reaming the underlying target zone, and cleaning the coal with a fresh-water flush. A down-hole submersible pump removes water from the coal and depressurizes the aquifer. The methane gas desorbs from the coal, flows up the annulus, and is piped to a metering facility where the gas and water production from each well is recorded. The methane then flows to a compressor station where the gas is compressed and shipped via pipeline. The produced water is either diverted to a central discharge point (called an outfall) and then into a drainage or impoundment, or is re-injected into nearby aquifers.

Schematic coalbed methane well diagram
Schematic coalbed methane well diagram. [Credit: WSGS]


Rachel Toner,

Derek Lichtner,