GWIP Current Projects

Energy and Groundwater in Montana

Co-Sponsored by
Montana Watershed Coordination Council,
Ground Water Working Group, and
Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology

Butte - July 31, 2012

Energy is vital to our lifestyles and to the national economy. In Montana, groundwater is a cornerstone of economic growth, and provides baseflow to our streams. Groundwater is an important and sometimes sole-source of water for most rural Montanans and their livestock. There are instances where energy development and groundwater protection come into conflict. A workshop was co-convened by the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology and the Ground Water Work Group of the Montana Watershed Coordination Council in order to foster a better understanding of specific issues and to encourage discussion on energy development and implications concerning groundwater among interested parties. Three types of energy development that involve groundwater were presented by seven speakers.

In non-traditional oil and gas, the energy resource is far deeper than the groundwater supply. Drilling penetrates the aquifers, and surface disturbances can occur in areas where groundwater is shallow. Groundwater used in the fracking process could strain existing aquifer storage and negatively affect productivity. The focuses of that session were the locations and geologic settings of non-traditional oil and gas plays, and how the drilling and fracking process is performed.

Coalbeds are aquifers that support agriculture in eastern Montana. Coal mining and coalbed methane production both occur within groundwater flow systems. Coal mining physically removes portions of aquifers. Coalbed methane production requires removal of the groundwater from the coal aquifer. The focus of that session was how these two energy resources are developed, potential groundwater impacts on quality and availability, and steps that are taken to protect groundwater resources.

In geothermal energy development, the heat energy contained in the groundwater is the resource. The third session included a description of geothermal energy in Montana. The final talk addressed geothermal energy in the underground mine workings at the Montana Tech campus which will eventually heat the Natural Resources Building, the location of the conference.

The final session of the workshop was a tour of an underground mine project. Miners are driving a decline drift just west of the Montana Tech campus to intersect the existing Orphan Boy shaft at the 100-foot level. When completed, a geothermal, closed loop system will be installed in the warm water in the mine. The heat-pump project under construction will harness geothermal energy beneath the Montana Tech campus.

normal lighting for underground mining Geothermal resource coal mining and groundwater impacts touring Orphan Boy