Coalbed methane

Coalbed methane

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Coalbed methane or Coal Bed Methane, coalbed gas or coal mine methane (CMM) is a form of natural gas
Natural gas
Natural gas is a naturally occurring gas mixture consisting primarily of methane, typically with 0–20% higher hydrocarbons . It is found associated with other hydrocarbon fuel, in coal beds, as methane clathrates, and is an important fuel source and a major feedstock for fertilizers.Most natural...

 extracted from coal
Coal is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock usually occurring in rock strata in layers or veins called coal beds or coal seams. The harder forms, such as anthracite coal, can be regarded as metamorphic rock because of later exposure to elevated temperature and pressure...

 beds. In recent decades it has become an important source of energy in United States, Canada, and other countries. Australia has rich deposits where it is known as coal seam gas (abbreviated "CSG").

The term refers to methane
Methane is a chemical compound with the chemical formula . It is the simplest alkane, the principal component of natural gas, and probably the most abundant organic compound on earth. The relative abundance of methane makes it an attractive fuel...

 adsorbed into the solid matrix of the coal. It is called 'sweet gas' because of its lack of hydrogen sulfide
Hydrogen sulfide
Hydrogen sulfide is the chemical compound with the formula . It is a colorless, very poisonous, flammable gas with the characteristic foul odor of expired eggs perceptible at concentrations as low as 0.00047 parts per million...

. The presence of this gas is well known from its occurrence
Firedamp is a flammable gas found in coal mines. It is the name given to a number of flammable gases, especially methane. It is particularly commonly found in areas where the coal is bituminous...

 in underground coal mining, where it presents a serious safety risk. Coalbed methane, often referred to as CBM, is distinct from a typical sandstone
Sandstone is a sedimentary rock composed mainly of sand-sized minerals or rock grains.Most sandstone is composed of quartz and/or feldspar because these are the most common minerals in the Earth's crust. Like sand, sandstone may be any colour, but the most common colours are tan, brown, yellow,...

 or other conventional gas reservoir, as the methane is stored within the coal by a process called adsorption
Adsorption is the adhesion of atoms, ions, biomolecules or molecules of gas, liquid, or dissolved solids to a surface. This process creates a film of the adsorbate on the surface of the adsorbent. It differs from absorption, in which a fluid permeates or is dissolved by a liquid or solid...

. The methane is in a near-liquid state, lining the inside of pores within the coal (called the matrix). The open fractures in the coal (called the cleats) can also contain free gas or can be saturated with water.

Unlike much natural gas from conventional reservoirs, coalbed methane contains very little heavier hydrocarbons such as propane
Propane is a three-carbon alkane with the molecular formula , normally a gas, but compressible to a transportable liquid. A by-product of natural gas processing and petroleum refining, it is commonly used as a fuel for engines, oxy-gas torches, barbecues, portable stoves, and residential central...

 or butane
Butane is a gas with the formula C4H10 that is an alkane with four carbon atoms. The term may refer to any of two structural isomers, or to a mixture of them: in the IUPAC nomenclature, however, butane refers only to the unbranched n-butane isomer; the other one being called "methylpropane" or...

, and no natural gas condensate
Natural gas condensate
Natural-gas condensate is a low-density mixture of hydrocarbon liquids that are present as gaseous components in the raw natural gas produced from many natural gas fields....

. It often contains up to a few percent carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring chemical compound composed of two oxygen atoms covalently bonded to a single carbon atom...

. Some coal seams, such as those in certain areas of the Illawarra Coal Measures in NSW, Australia, contain little methane, with the predominant coal seam gas being carbon dioxide.

Permeability of coal bed methane reservoirs

Permeability (foundry sand)
Permeability is a property of foundry sand with respect to how well the sand can vent, i.e. how well gases pass through the sand.And in other words, permeability is the property by which we can know the ability of material to transmit fluid/gases...

 is key factor for CBM. Coal itself is a low permeability reservoir.
Almost all the permeability of a coal bed is usually considered to be due to fractures, which in coal are in the form of cleats and joints. The permeability of the coal matrix is negligible by comparison. Coal cleats are of two types: butt cleats and face cleats, which occur at nearly right angles. The face cleats are continuous and provide paths of higher permeability while butt cleats are discontinuous and end at face cleats. Joints are larger fractures through the coal that may cross lithological boundaries. Hence, on a small scale, fluid flow through coal bed methane reservoirs usually follows rectangular paths. The ratio of permeabilities in the face cleat direction over the butt cleat direction may range from 1:1 to 17:1. Because of this anisotropic permeability, drainage areas around coal bed methane wells are often elliptical in shape.

Intrinsic properties affecting gas production

Gas contained in coal bed methane is mainly methane and trace quantities of ethane
Ethane is a chemical compound with chemical formula C2H6. It is the only two-carbon alkane that is an aliphatic hydrocarbon. At standard temperature and pressure, ethane is a colorless, odorless gas....

, nitrogen
Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.08% by volume of Earth's atmosphere...

, carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring chemical compound composed of two oxygen atoms covalently bonded to a single carbon atom...

 and few other gases. Intrinsic properties of coal as found in nature determine the amount of gas that can be recovered.


The porosity
Porosity or void fraction is a measure of the void spaces in a material, and is a fraction of the volume of voids over the total volume, between 0–1, or as a percentage between 0–100%...

 of coal bed reservoirs is usually very small, ranging from 0.1 to 10%.

Adsorption capacity

Adsorption capacity of coal is defined as the volume of gas adsorbed per unit mass of coal usually expressed in SCF (standard cubic feet, the volume at standard pressure and temperature conditions) gas/ton of coal. The capacity to adsorb depends on the rank and quality of coal. The range is usually between 100 to 800 SCF/ton for most coal seams found in the US. Most of the gas in coal beds is in the adsorbed form. When the reservoir is put into production, water in the fracture spaces is pumped off first. This leads to a reduction of pressure enhancing desorption of gas from the matrix.

Fracture permeability

As discussed before, the fracture permeability acts as the major channel for the gas to flow. The higher the permeability, higher is the gas production. For most coal seams found in the US, the permeability lies in the range of 0.1 to 50 milliDarcies. The permeability of fractured reservoirs changes with the stress applied to them. Coal displays a stress-sensitive permeability and this process plays an important role during stimulation and production operations.

Thickness of formation and initial reservoir pressure

The thickness of the formation may not be directly proportional to the volume of gas produced in some areas.

For Example: It has been observed in the Cherokee Basin in Southeast Kansas that a well with a single zone of 1–2 ft of pay can produce excellent gas rates, whereas an alternative formation with twice the thickness can produce next to nothing. Some coal (and shale) formations may have high gas concentrations regardless of the formation's thickness, probably due to other factors of the area's geology.

The pressure difference between the well block and the sand face should be as high as possible as is the case with any producing reservoir in general.

Other properties

Other affecting parameters include coal density, initial gas phase concentration, critical gas saturation, irreducible water saturation, relative permeability to water and gas at conditions of Sw = 1.0 and Sg = 1-Swirreducible respectively.


To extract the gas, a steel-encased hole is drilled into the coal seam (100–1500 meters below ground). As the pressure within the coal seam declines due to natural production or the pumping of water from the coalbed, both gas and 'produced water' come to the surface through tubing. Then the gas is sent to a compressor station and into natural gas pipelines. The 'produced water' is either reinjected into isolated formations, released into streams, used for irrigation, or sent to evaporation ponds. The water typically contains dissolved solids such as sodium bicarbonate
Sodium bicarbonate
Sodium bicarbonate or sodium hydrogen carbonate is the chemical compound with the formula Na HCO3. Sodium bicarbonate is a white solid that is crystalline but often appears as a fine powder. It has a slightly salty, alkaline taste resembling that of washing soda . The natural mineral form is...

 and chloride
The chloride ion is formed when the element chlorine, a halogen, picks up one electron to form an anion Cl−. The salts of hydrochloric acid HCl contain chloride ions and can also be called chlorides. The chloride ion, and its salts such as sodium chloride, are very soluble in water...


Coalbed methane wells often produce at lower gas rates than conventional reservoirs, typically peaking at near 300000 cubic feet (8,495.1 m³) per day (about 0.100 m³/s), and can have large initial costs. The production profiles of CBM wells are typically characterized by a "negative decline" in which the gas production rate initially increases as the water is pumped off and gas begins to desorb and flow. A dry CBM well is similar to a standard gas well.

The methane desorption process follows a curve (of gas content vs. reservoir pressure) called a Langmuir isotherm. The isotherm can be analytically described by a maximum gas content (at infinite pressure), and the pressure at which half that gas exists within the coal. These parameters (called the Langmuir volume and Langmuir pressure, respectively) are properties of the coal, and vary widely. A coal in Alabama
Alabama is a state located in the southeastern region of the United States. It is bordered by Tennessee to the north, Georgia to the east, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and Mississippi to the west. Alabama ranks 30th in total land area and ranks second in the size of its inland...

 and a coal in Colorado
Colorado is a U.S. state that encompasses much of the Rocky Mountains as well as the northeastern portion of the Colorado Plateau and the western edge of the Great Plains...

 may have radically different Langmuir parameters, despite otherwise similar coal properties.

As production occurs from a coal reservoir, the changes in pressure are believed to cause changes in the porosity and permeability of the coal. This is commonly known as matrix shrinkage/swelling. As the gas is desorbed, the pressure exerted by the gas inside the pores decreases, causing them to shrink in size and restricting gas flow through the coal. As the pores shrink, the overall matrix shrinks as well, which may eventually increase the space the gas can travel through (the cleats), increasing gas flow.

The potential of a particular coalbed as a CBM source depends on the following criteria. Cleat density/intensity: cleats are joints confined within coal sheets. They impart permeability to the coal seam. A high cleat density is required for profitable exploitation of CBM. Also important is the maceral composition: maceral
A maceral is a component of coal or oil shale. The term 'maceral' in reference to coal is analogous to the use of the term 'mineral' in reference to igneous or metamorphic rocks. Examples of macerals are inertinite, vitrinite and liptinite.- Inertinite :...

 is a microscopic, homogeneous, petrographic entity of a corresponding sedimentary rock. A high vitrinite composition is ideal for CBM extraction, while inertinite hampers the same.

The rank of coal has also been linked to CBM content: a vitrinite reflectance of 0.8-1.5% has been found to imply higher productivity of the coalbed.

The gas composition must be considered, because natural gas appliances are designed for gas with a heating value of about 1000 BTU (British thermal unit
British thermal unit
The British thermal unit is a traditional unit of energy equal to about 1055 joules. It is approximately the amount of energy needed to heat of water, which is exactly one tenth of a UK gallon or about 0.1198 US gallons, from 39°F to 40°F...

s) per cubic foot, or nearly pure methane. If the gas contains more than a few percent non-flammable gases such as nitrogen
Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.08% by volume of Earth's atmosphere...

 or carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring chemical compound composed of two oxygen atoms covalently bonded to a single carbon atom...

, either these will have to be removed or it will have to be blended with higher-BTU gas to achieve pipeline quality. If the methane composition of the coalbed gas is less than 92%, it may not be commercially marketable.

Environmental impacts

CBM wells are connected by a network of roads, pipelines, and compressor stations. Over time, wells may be spaced more closely in order to extract the remaining methane. Additionally, the produced water may contain undesirable concentrations of dissolved substances. Water withdrawal may depress aquifers over a large area and affect groundwater flows.

In Australia, produced water is typically evaporated in large ponds due to the high salinity of the water. When these ponds fail (e.g. Chinchilla), the salinity content has destroyed contiguous soil quality and vegetation. Recently a number of gas companies have commenced operating or developing plant to treat the product water for use as domestic supply, cooling water for power stations, or discharge to streams. These plant typically use reverse osmosis
Reverse osmosis
Reverse osmosis is a membrane technical filtration method that removes many types of large molecules and ions from solutions by applying pressure to the solution when it is on one side of a selective membrane. The result is that the solute is retained on the pressurized side of the membrane and...

 to treat the product water.

The environmental impacts of CBM development are considered by various governmental bodies during the permitting process and operation, which provide opportunities for public comment and intervention. Operators are required to obtain building permits for roads, pipelines and structures, obtain wastewater (produced water) discharge permits, and prepare Environmental Impact Statements. As with other natural resource utilization activities, the application and effectiveness of environmental laws, regulation, and enforcement vary with location. Violations of applicable laws and regulations are addressed through regulatory bodies and criminal and civil judicial proceedings.

Several environmental and conservation organizations work specifically on advocating for responsible coal bed methane development. Northern Plains Resource Council
Northern Plains Resource Council
The Northern Plains Resource Council is an environmental lobbying organization based in Montana. It was founded in 1972 to lobby for stricter environmental controls on coal mining and coal fired power plants.-External Links:**...

 has been leading this fight in Montana since 1999, and the Citizens Concerned About Coalbed Methane has worked out of Fernie, BC since 1998.


Coalbed methane reserve estimates vary; however a 1997 estimate from the U.S. Geological Survey predicts more than 700 cubic feet (198.2 m³) of methane within the US. At a natural gas price of US$6.05 per million Btu (US$5.73/GJ), that volume is worth US$4.37trillion. At least 100 cubic feet (28.3 m³) of it is economically viable to produce.

In Canada, British Columbia
British Columbia
British Columbia is the westernmost of Canada's provinces and is known for its natural beauty, as reflected in its Latin motto, Splendor sine occasu . Its name was chosen by Queen Victoria in 1858...

 is estimated to have approximately 90 cubic feet (25.5 m³) of coalbed gas. Alberta, to date the only province with commercial coalbed methane wells, is estimated to have approximately 170 cubic feet (48.1 m³) of economically recoverable coalbed methane.

Recent depressed natural gas prices have made CBM less economically viable compared to the past few years.

Currently considered a non-renewable resource
Non-renewable resource
A non-renewable resource is a natural resource which cannot be produced, grown, generated, or used on a scale which can sustain its consumption rate, once depleted there is no more available for future needs. Also considered non-renewable are resources that are consumed much faster than nature...

, there is evidence by the Alberta Research Council
Alberta Research Council
Alberta Research Council is an Alberta government funded applied research and development corporation. In January 2010, the name was changed to Alberta Innovates - Technology Futures -History:...

, Alberta Geological Survey
Alberta Geological Survey
Alberta Geological Survey is part of the Energy Resources Conservation Board, a provincial agency of the Government of Alberta. Alberta Geological Survey provides geological information and expertise to government, industry and the public about Alberta’s Earth resources and geological processes for...

 and others showing coalbed methane is a renewable resource
Renewable resource
A renewable resource is a natural resource with the ability of being replaced through biological or other natural processes and replenished with the passage of time...

, because the bacterial action that formed the methane is ongoing. The assertion of being renewable, however, has itself become one of debate since it has also been shown that the dewatering that accompanies CBM production destroys the conditions needed for the bacteria to produce methane. In addition, the rate of formation of additional methane is undetermined. This debate is currently causing a right of ownership issue in the Canadian
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

 province of Alberta
Alberta is a province of Canada. It had an estimated population of 3.7 million in 2010 making it the most populous of Canada's three prairie provinces...

, as only non-renewable resources can legally be owned by the province.

External links