Coal Mine Methane- Colorado Voices II

A methane drainage well

There are many compelling public lands issues not related to vegetation treatments. This is a small contribution to increasing public knowledge of some of these.

Remember Ed Quillen in his op-ed Maximum Trashing Utilization, here, described the coal mine methane issue this way…

here has been some progress on the regulatory front. Back in 2008, High Country News carried a story about methane escaping from Western coal mines. Methane is a flammable gas (it and its close chemical relative ethane are the major components of natural gas) that is given off by coal as it decomposes underground.
Since methane is flammable and sometimes explosive, mine safety requires venting it away from the working area.
Logically, this methane should be burned in a productive way. Unburned methane is more than 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas as the carbon dioxide produced by combustion. Plus, there’s the energy from burning it, which could be used to heat homes or generate electricity.
But certain regulatory policies for coal mines on federal land prevented the methane from being put to public use. Essentially, the mining companies had the right to use the coal, but not the methane. For safety reasons, they have to vent it — but they couldn’t put it to work.
That’s changed recently, at least on a case-by-case basis. The Interior Department now allows the capture and sale of methane. But is it economical to do so when the methane is diffuse and the nearest pipeline might lie miles away?
“We’ve tried to look at it every way in the world. If it were economic to do, we would already be doing it. It would add to our income.” That’s what James Cooper, president of Oxbow Mining, which operates the Elk Creek Mine in western Colorado, told a Grand Junction business journal.

Cap-and-trade legislation might change the economics by paying the coal company to capture methane. It’s unlikely to be enacted in the current political climate, but again, if some subsidies are required to get MTU, there are certainly worse ways to spend public money.

Here’s Ted Zukoski from Earthjustice on flowers, coal and methane (“Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment.”).

With hot summers hitting the high country in the Rockies hard, one would wish the agencies that manage many of the mountain meadows – the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management – would be doing something about climate change.
To the contrary. BLM recently proudly approved a new coal mine expansion on Colorado’s West Slope, enabling the Elk Creek Mine to vent untreated more than 5-million-cubic-feet of methane pollution into the atmosphere every day. BLM refused to even take a hard look at alternatives to require the mine to capture the methane or reduce its climate change impact. This unnecessary methane pollution will have the warming impact of 1 million tons of carbon dioxide over a year – about the same as a small coal-fired power-plant.

Ted also makes some comments on Colorado roadless and coal, which I’ll discuss in a later post.

In my view, BLM did take a pretty good look, check it out for yourself here. But ultimately more pages of analysis are not going to change the fact that it’s not economic to do it, and that’s what the regulations are based on. The BLM regulations were designed for methane to be a gas that has economic value. If, instead, methane from coal mines were regulated as a pollutant, mines could simply be required to capture it. We don’t need cap and trade or any fancy mechanism to do this. It could be as simple as legislation to require capture of methane from coal mines on federal land.

But one thing I know is that many people could write paragraphs pages or books on the environmental impacts; virtual roomfuls of attorneys could have lengthy and expensive conversations (and have had) but that won’t solve the regulatory problem. In my opinion, joint efforts toward a surgical piece of legislation would probably be much more productive for the environment than more analysis and roomfuls of folks jawing or writing.

Ed Quillen brought up subsidies, I suggested legislation. A group of environmental lawyers are litigating (predictably). Would there be less methane in the air today if all had worked together on identifying and pushing one policy solution?

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