ATLAS OF COAL GEOLOGY

Volume I

COAL G EOLOGY
EXPLORATION, MINING, AND
COALBED METHANE
OVERVIEW OF COALBED METHANE
D. Keith Murray
The exploration for and development of coalbed methane (CBM), more accurately termed “coalbed
gas”, requires a thorough understanding of the geology of both coal and petroleum, together with
many aspects of mining and reservoir engineering. Furthermore, the geology of the entire coalbearing sequence(s) in an area of interest should be evaluated carefully. This evaluation should
include any contributions by structural features and other lithological units that may be capable of
storing volumes of coal-generated hydrocarbons.
Exploration studies should address such topics as 1) the physical and chemical nature of the
coal (rank, chemistry, depositional environment, diagenesis, mineralization, etc.), 2) the thermal
history and hydrodynamics of the region of interest, 3) composite thickness of the coal seams and
of the overburden, 4) geologic structure and tectonic features, such as fracture patterns and igneous
units, 5) coalbed gas desorption data in the study area, and 6) a petrographic analysis of available
coal cores and well cuttings.
Coal is the most abundant mineral fuel in the world,
with total in-place resources estimated to be as high as 27
trillion tonnes (Picture 1). More than 90% of this immense
resource is found in the Northern Hemisphere, and nearly
80% is bituminous or higher in rank (“hard coal”). It is
estimated that the energy content of the world’s known
resources of coal is equivalent to more than 40 trillion
barrels of oil. The future for CBM development appears to
be promising (Howell, 1993).

Significance Of Coal and Coalbed Gas

Picture 1
World coal distribution showing known and
inferred coal deposits.

Coal is a very complex substance (VanKrevelen, 1961).
Instead of being a “solid” material, as is commonly
believed, it is an intermixture of matrix and occluded molecular constituents. It is a fuel, an organic
sediment, a rock, an accumulation of plant debris, a solid colloid, and an organic chemical
substance.
Coal is one of the richest sources of hydrocarbons, high in humic kerogenous organic matter.
It constitutes both a source and a reservoir of hydrocarbons. Coalbed gas consists of methane
(typically 95% or more), occasionally with some heavier organic fractions and, in certain cases,

© 1998 Energy Minerals Division, AAPG

Some coals in the San Juan Basin (United States). Generation of Gases. and anthracite coal. AAPG . or is expelled. decrease in moisture content. bituminous. as well as in the micropores.. and a marked increase in thermally generated methane (Murray. which can be as high as 0. of humic kerogenous organic matter (largely oxygenrich lignin and cellulose) results in a progressive devolatization of the kerogen in the coal. the generated gas can be either biogenic (typical of low-rank coal). Coal can behave as a crosslinked rubber. or absorb methane in varying amounts. for example. which typically occurs in the 5 angstroms to 500 angstroms-plus size range. Methane storage is achieved by two primary methods: 1) in the microporosity system. together with an increase in carbon content. due to the extremely high internal surface areas of coal.5-2 million ft2 /lb) (Picture 2). Coal has the capacity to retain. wherein the gas is absorbed within or adsorbed upon the molecular structure of the kerogen in the coal. and China. and Gas Storage Not all of the methane generated during the coalification process migrates. Australia. produce a waxy oil or condensate.09-0. The gases so generated are stored in high concentrations in both the coal and the associated sediments after the gas-expulsion point in the coal has been attained. or a mixture of both. Coal deforms when stressed. or metamorphism.19 million m2 /kg (1. The peat-forming process involves biochemical reactions (diagenesis). bituminous and higher rank coals pass through a geochemical (thermogenic and catagenic) stage. Volume-for-volume. thermogenic. 1991). store. The entrapped “gases” easily volatilize in-situ when the ambient reservoir pressure is reduced (Levine. 1991). and it can swell to nearly double its original volume when it absorbs certain solvents (Levine.or micro-) porosity. The retention of methane in coal also can be expressed as follows: 1) as sorbed molecules on the internal surfaces or within the molecular structure of the coal.Atlas of Coal Geology Vol. 3) as free gas within the cleat and fracture systems. high-rank coals are capable of storing as much as three to four times as much gas as are porous sandstone reservoirs under similar conditions. The thermal maturation. increase in the degree of molecular ordering. 1990 and 1991). which is defined as the process by which vegetal material progressively evolves from peat to lignite to subbituminous. Depending on the rank of the coal. and 2) in the macroporosity system. by conventional volume storage within the cleats or fractures that almost always are present in the coal (Meissner. 1984). out of coal seams. Coalification. “flexing” as it sorbs or desorbs water and methane and behaving as a selective sorbent. and 4) as gas dissolved in the free water that may exist in the cleats and fractures (Choate et al. Picture 2 Illustration comparing the structural elements of conventional gas sand and coal seam reservoirs. 1 Overview of Coalbed Methane carbon dioxide (10-15%). The volumes of methane that can be stored by © 1998 Energy Minerals Division. Coalbed gas is free of sulfur and generally of pipeline quality. 1986). 2) as gas trapped within the matrix (macro. increase in calorific value and in percent vitrinite reflectance. The absorbed gas is packed within the coal structure so tightly that it possesses some characteristics of a liquid. The gases generated from coal are byproducts of coalification.

62 m3 (22 scf) of gas or 2. Macerals are microscopic components of coal and consist of the remains of the original plant material (Ulery. at vitrinite reflectance levels of less than 0. from the surrounding clastic reservoirs. expelling it into the surrounding sediments when the total storage capacity of the coal has been exceeded. or as a clathrate cage (analogous to the structure of zeolite minerals). that methane in coals presents problems and paradoxes that are not found in more “conventional” reservoir rocks.) that are found in coals. and He. can hold 0. On the other hand. The composition. coals may continue to generate methane. 0.Atlas of Coal Geology Vol. the level of thermal alteration has a decided effect upon the composition of the hydrocarbons generated by terrestrial (Type III) organic matter. and reservoir pressure (Meissner. Gas produced directly from coal seams is almost always of pipeline quality. exinite.6 times as much. high-rank coals have indicated that the presence of H2 S and other sulfur compounds in coalbed gas is virtually unknown. 1984).6% Ro max) than generally believed (Snowdon and Powell. 1982).e. alginite. reservoir temperature. and 2) as an absorbing “sponge”. H 2 . There is good evidence that autochthonous generation of hydrocarbons may. and traps (Meissner. expulsion of methane takes place at the point at which generation exceeds storage capacity under conditions of constant temperature and pressure. wherein the micropore system appears to behave as a molecular sieve. CO2 .03 m3 (1 ft3 ) of sandstone having 15% porosity and 75% gas saturation. occur at lower levels of thermal maturity (i. the coals will tend to reabsorb. N 2 .4 scf) of gas.500 ft. at a depth of 760 m (2. 1 Overview of Coalbed Methane molecular absorption and in the microporosity system are determined by coal rank. The thermal heating/high volume gas generation and cooling/gas reabsorption processes can result in overpressured and underpressured gas accumulations. (vitrinite. For example.000 ft)). O2 . in basins undergoing thermal cooling. and liberation rates of hydrocarbons generated by the coalification process appear basically to be a function of the relative abundance of the various macerals. respectively. which together with contiguous sandstone reservoir beds contain the critical indigenous elements of source. Another problem involves the dynamic nature of an accumulation of coal-derived methane which results from the ability of coal to act both 1) as a “gas-generating machine”. are characterized by having gas storage capacity beyond that of generation. This phenomenon is in part due to the unique molecular structure of coal. 1984). the gas that the coal seams originally generated as their storage capacity is increased during the cooling phase. whereas the same volume of medium-volatile bituminous coal at the same depth can store 0. It can be seen. Under conditions of thermal heating. even from high-sulfur coals. then. Analyses of gases recovered from certain relatively deep (greater than 1. in some situations. being composed of approximately 90% to 95% methane in most instances. with minor amounts of heavier hydrocarbons. It is important to note that lower-rank coals.24 m3 (8. AAPG . migration paths.. © 1998 Energy Minerals Division. etc. which are common in many of the coal-bearing Rocky Mountain basins. volumes.520 m (5.). Furthermore. 1984) (see Volume 2). Additionally. those below medium-volatile bituminous rank. in which methane molecules are nested within benzene rings.

Once a pressure gradient has been established. and Moore.012 Btu/scf) at 15˚C (60˚ F) and atmospheric pressure). Conversely. coalbed methane is high in heating value. where the pressure has been lowered to less than hydrostatic. is non-destructive to the coal. © 1998 Energy Minerals Division. Kissell and Edwards (1975) have demonstrated that by lowering the water saturation in the fractures and cleats in the coal. The relative permeabilities to both gas and water are critical to the initial production of methane from coal reservoirs. 1 Overview of Coalbed Methane Assessment of Resources of Coalbed Gas The exploration for and assessment of accumulations of coalbed gas are discussed in some detail in published reports (Choate et al.Atlas of Coal Geology Vol. Critical factors involved in economic production of coalbed gas include the following (Moore. Mavor et al.e. 1995 and 1996. Ultimately. These two types of mass transport are interdependent. unlike in-situ gasification techniques.050 Btu/scf) (pure methane has a heating value of 19.940. In water-saturated coals. 1995. AAPG . Furthermore.. resulting in an increasing rate of gas production and a corresponding decrease in rate of water production. 1990).840 kcal/m3 (1. 1986. 1996). more space is made available to the gas phase). the productivity of a CBM well is dependent largely upon the ability to lower reservoir pressure and water saturation (if present) in the coal reservoir.. being driven by the pressure gradient. generally between approximately 18. or micropores. water must be removed (usually by pumping) in order to disturb the equilibrium that exists between the methane Picture 3 absorbed within the micropores and that existing in the Illustration of coalbed gas recovery by fracture system (Picture 4). The majority of coal reservoirs are at essentially hydrostatic pressure. A multiwell pattern is necessary in order to create drainage boundaries or areas of interference.. the driving force being a concentration gradient. of the coal and desorbs and diffuses through the coal at a rate governed by the diffusion process described by Fick’s Law or by other diffusion models.5. Yee. methane will first diffuse into the fracture reservoir pressure depletion (after Puri and system and then from the fractures into the wellbore. Once the gas has migrated into the larger pores and into the cleat and fracture system. Scott et al. and they depend on a system of fractures and cleats for most of their permeability (Picture 3). Absorbed gas is stored in the matrix. typically in the range of 2. the effective permeability to gas is increased (i.580 kcal/m3 (950-1. 1996): • • • • Coal petrology Internal formation stratigraphy Hydrogeology Initial reservoir pressure • • • • Gas content of the coal reservoir Distribution of fractures and cleats In-situ stress conditions Amount of “free” gas saturation Production of Coalbed Gas The production of gas from coal beds. gas produced from the insitu gasification of coal is low in heat content.630-20. Such “negative declines” have been observed in a number of coalbed methane wells in productive areas such as the San Juan and Black Warrior basins of the United States. it then will flow into the wellbore (or mine) according to Darcy’s Law..880 kcal/m3 (150300 Btu/scf).

will link the wellbore to the reservoir.S. New Technologies in Coalbed Gas Development Murray and Schwochow (1997) summarizes the positive effect of new technological advances on growing CBM development in the United States. that uses an inert gas such as nitrogen to inject into the coal reservoir to strip a high percentage (perhaps 85% or more) of the methane from the reservoir (Picture 8). 1997). . 1 Overview of Coalbed Methane Most of the coalbed gas production in the world comes from several fields in the United States. Picture 7 Flaring CBM well at approximately 10 MMcfd after cavitated completion in the San Juan Basin. or more than 5% of the total U.3 million m3 (1 TCFG) annually from some 6. In the international arena. More than 80% of the total CBM production in the United States comes from the San Juan Basin of Colorado and New Mexico (Murray and Schwochow.000 wells. dry gas production (Pictures 5 and 6). in which the coal reservoirs are encouraged to slough into the wellbore. Inc.. hopefully. New Mexico. encouraging volumes of CBM. which totals more than 28. The following are some of the new innovative technologies currently being employed in the United States. especially in the Rocky Mountain region: 1) Productivity Improvement Program (PIP). 2) Dynamic Open Hole (cavitation) completions. which uses reliable. low-cost diagnostic tools and methods to determine factors involved in poor performance of CBM wells (due to such factors as poor connectivity of the coal reservoir to the wellbore). a process patented by Amoco. © 1998 Energy Minerals Division. Rio Arriba County. 3) Enhanced Coalbed Methane (ECBM) Recovery. which may be considered to be of commercial size are being reported from several areas in China and Australia (Cairn Point Publishing. 1990). AAPG Picture 8 Illustration of enhanced coalbed gas recovery by nitrogen injection (after Puri and Yee. 1997) (Picture 7). thereby creating numerous fractures that.Atlas of Coal Geology Vol.

developed by scientists at the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology. coal rank. subbituminous coals in the Powder River Basin. Important papers by Mavor et al. depositional systems and coal distribution. © 1998 Energy Minerals Division. is very important in evaluating CBM projects. Beds of subbituminous coal up to approximately 60 m (200 ft) thick in the upper part of the Fort Union Formation (Paleocene) are producing at initial rates as high as 8. have been applied to Rocky Mountain basins that include the San Juan. and the tectonic and structural settings of the coal basins (Scott et al. including coal. reservoir permeability. They have demonstrated that dynamic interaction among geologic and hydrologic controls and their spatial relations determine producibility of a coal reservoir. 9) Basin-scale CMB producibility models.5. This innovative project showed that three dimensional multi-component seismic data can be used to directly map permeability anisotropy in a fractured reservoir. hydrodynamics. shallow. 6) Dynamic tectonic modeling has shown that recurrent basement faulting is the primary controlling mechanism for the alignment and compartmentalization of certain “continuoustype” gas reservoirs. (1995 and 1996) quantitatively evaluate the accuracy of estimates of gas content of coal seams. Greater Green River and Piceance basins.14 Mm3 /d (300-500 Mcfd) from depths mostly less than 150 m (500 ft).7 m3 /tonne (150 scf/ton)) and relatively low rank (high-volatile B bituminous). 8) Commercial CBM production from low-rank coals (thick. in the San Juan Basin. New Mexico. both in-situ content and storage capacity. Wyoming and Montana) currently are being developed on a large scale in the northern and northeastern parts of the basin.. 1995). These controls include gas content. 1 Overview of Coalbed Methane 4) Production of CBM from shallow underpressured coal reservoirs characterized by low in-situ gas contents (less than 4. 10) Improved understanding of the gas content of coal beds. AAPG . Burlington Resources Oil and Gas Company has completed more than 160 CBM wells roughly 48 km (30 miles) south of the overpressured Fruitland Formation coalbed fairway.Atlas of Coal Geology Vol. resulting in an increase in permeability. 7) Improved understanding of the permeability of coal reservoirs has led to the observation that the matrix volume of coal shrinks when occluded gases desorb from its microstructure. 5) Seismic characterization of fractured coal reservoirs was initiated in the Department of Geophysics at Colorado School of Mines in 1984.