Pitkin County Commissioners last week passed a resolution that could be seen as an opening salute in a new battle against greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the continued release of methane from just abandoned coal mines west of Redstone.
“Destroy the gas!” might as well be the rallying cry of a group of like-minded parties with an informally titled mission called the Goal Basin Methane Capture Project. The stakeholder group includes, but is not limited to, Pitkin County, Holy Cross Energy, Community Office for Resource Efficiency, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, and Delta Brick and Climate Solutions.
Delta Brick, which is officially based in Montrose, has received two grants from CORE to conduct preliminary studies on emissions from mines in the Coal Basin area and to develop a framework for solutions to the problem. The scale of the problem is considered serious, according to a memorandum from Zach Hendrix, the county‘s climate action manager.
“This abandoned mine complex releases 1.3 million cubic feet of methane per day, equivalent to 41% to 143% of greenhouse gas emissions from all human activities in Pitkin County each year. Capturing and destroying methane from abandoned mines can reduce their greenhouse potential by 25 to 86 times, ”the memo reads.
Generally, there are two main options for destroying methane. The most expensive would be to get the gas from the old mine site – which is in a mountainous area without paved roads at elevations above 10,000 feet – to a location near Redstone. There, the gas could be converted into electricity for use in the Sainte-Croix power grid.
Another option would be to vent or burn the methane in the atmosphere near the site itself. While this would have a negative impact on the environment in the short term, it is seen as a much better alternative than doing nothing and allowing “fugitive methane”, as it is called, to be released into the environment. atmosphere at a rate that represents a greater greenhouse effect than all human-made emissions in the county.
However, there are federal regulatory hurdles that stand in the way of action. County officials and members of the stakeholder group are working together to address this. They contacted US Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper for assistance in this matter.
While the initiative is supported by the Pitkin County Council of Commissioners – three of the five participated in a site visit to the mining complex on September 30 to better understand the problem – Commissioner Greg Poschman has been its most vocal advocate. . He said he was trying to connect the “sense of urgency” surrounding the release of methane from the coal basin so that the project would gain support from policymakers in Washington, DC and the Roaring Fork Valley community.
“It’s like cancer,” Poschman said, “and we have to eliminate it.”
On the western slope alone, there are dozens of abandoned coal mines where methane is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
But the local stakeholder group is targeting the coal basin, as it is believed to have one of the largest methane releases of any mining complex in the region. If preliminary studies on the release near Redstone prove that there are deep pockets of methane, they hope the solution – whatever it is – will serve as a “pilot project” for similar initiatives across the state.
Project co-lead Chris Caskey of Paonia, scientist and owner of Delta Brick and Climate Solutions, points out that there are other efforts underway in Colorado to destroy methane or convert it to other uses. He took on a leadership role for one of these efforts in the mining town of Somerset, located in Gunnison County. This project started several years ago, largely thanks to the influence of CORE and with the financial support of Aspen Skiing Co.
This project, which involves converting methane to electricity, did not have the regulatory hurdles that Coal Basin faces, as it involved methane mitigation at a working coal mine – not one that has not gone away since. three decades.
The obstacles, Caskey explained, are rooted in the fact that underground gas falls under the responsibility of the Bureau of Land Management, while the Coal Basin lands fall under the jurisdiction of the US Forest Service.
In the view of the federal government, entering an abandoned coal mine for the purpose of capturing gas for flaring or other use (such as power generation) is an activity comparable to the production of oil and gas. Those involved in the methane capture project do not want their efforts to inadvertently open up a rural area to leases and energy production.
As the county resolution states, “Pitkin County and the BOCC support the creation of a federal and state regulatory framework that allows fugitive methane from abandoned mines to be destroyed or used for power generation as well. that it is not captured or extracted for resale as a natural gas product.
Unfortunately, Caskey said, “There are no good rules for how to clean up methane.”
Until about a week ago, the local stakeholder group planned to directly ask the US Department of the Interior to create “a new regulatory framework” that would allow the Coal Basin Initiative and other projects. methane capture at abandoned mine sites to continue.
However, according to Poschman and CORE executive director Mona Newton, the direct request to Home Secretary Deb Haaland is being dropped and a new strategy is being developed: one that would allow the project to coal basin to go ahead under the Federal Lands Policy Management Act.
This is the short-term strategy, Poschman said, developed in part because the two senators will wield more influence than a letter to Haaland from commissioners and other project partners. The long-term strategy still involves changing federal laws to allow the capture and destruction of methane at abandoned coal mining sites without opening the door to oil and gas development, he said.
“Changing the rules could take two or three years,” Poschman said. “We want to start this now. We therefore hope to obtain the support of our senators to influence the Interior through the FLPMA. “
More alphabet soup is in the picture, as it may be necessary to conduct an environmental study through NEPA, or the National Environmental Policy Act, before the project can proceed.
During Wednesday’s meeting and discussion of the resolution, Pitkin County commissioners informally expressed their willingness to undertake a NEPA study on a potential coal basin methane capture project, if necessary. . It would likely be funded by the county and managed by a third party contractor.
Poschman said some members of the community would protest a company to destroy methane in the coal basin – a project likely involving heavy machinery, vehicles and pipelines – because they see it as a pristine rural area. But the recent site visit proved that the area was a center of industrial activity for many decades, as evidenced by the tools and mechanical debris left behind by mine operators and workers.
The quality of the site’s restoration, carried out several years after the mine closed in the early 1990s, was poor, according to Poschman. Caskey was more diplomatic, saying the state had run him in a way that met the minimum requirement: air.
“The coalfield is not a pristine area now,” Poschman said. “We have to face a global threat and we have to make some tough choices. “
“It’s an invisible problem,” Caskey said, “but the solution is going to be very visible.”
Much more to do
Newton, Executive Director of CORE, also participated in the site visit at the end of September.
She stressed that discussions surrounding the release of methane are not new. She said former CORE director Randy Udall was part of the impetus behind the Somerset project.
There is much more data on methane emissions that Caskey needs to gather in the coalfield before decisions can be made, Newton said. Meanwhile, CORE is involved in the effort to lobby federal decision-makers for approval of the project.
“Right now we need to do more intensive data collection to find out if there is that much methane [underground] as we think, ”Newton said.
She said that while methane destruction projects are a priority, they are no less and no more important than other environmental efforts, such as one targeting greenhouse gas emissions from buildings.
“Buildings account for 62% of the community’s emissions,” Newton said. “We must continue to tackle these issues every day. Corn [methane capture] ranks right up there.
Poschman said overcoming the regulatory hurdle was first and foremost on his mind right now.
“Drilling [to the gas] and mining, that might be the easy part compared to [getting approval]”Poschman said.
During the BOCC’s brief discussion on Wednesday regarding the adoption of the resolution, other commissioners expressed support and some thanked Poschman for underscoring the need for swift action on the methane issue.
“I think it will make a big difference, not only to our community but to the counties of Colorado,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper.