Passing gas

Western states struggle to capture methane emissions from coal mines

  • At the Aberdeen coal mine in eastern Utah, methane gas released from the mine is purified and sent into a natural gas pipeline for use in homes and businesses.

    Courtesy Randy Udall

Aspen, Colo., like many Western cities, is working hard to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions. The ski resort gets three-quarters of its electricity from renewable sources, provides free mass transit, and sells “Canary Tags” to fund local emissions-cutting projects. One possibility for such projects is at coal mines, three of which lie 50 miles southwest.

Coal mines are a global-warming double whammy. Each ton of coal burned emits about three tons of carbon dioxide. Then there’s the methane that seeps from underground coal seams — it packs 21 times the climate-changing punch of CO2. To neutralize it, the methane can be burned off, or, better still, used to generate power. The resulting emissions reduction can then be sold to a city or business that wants to offset its contribution to global warming.

Aspen would have liked to work with the local West Elk Mine, but legal obstacles made that impossible. So it went to the Aberdeen coal mine in Utah and helped set up a project to pipe methane, only to find that an independent auditor wouldn’t certify the project. The city gave up. Yet at some 40 active and abandoned underground coal mines in the West, 20 billion cubic feet of methane escapes into the atmosphere each year, the emissions equivalent of 1.9 million cars. Several knotty issues plague attempts to capture those emissions — even as methane-recovery projects flourish east of the Mississippi.

For safety, all underground coal mines in the U.S. exhaust huge amounts of diluted methane. Some, including the West Elk, produce so much of the explosive natural gas that they also drill drainage wells to vent it. The West Elk puts some of its methane — about 170 million cubic feet each year — to work heating ventilation air on site. But now the mine plans to send much more methane into the air. Last fall, St. Louis, Mo.-based Arch Coal got an expansion permit from the Forest Service that will allow it to drill 168 new drainage wells to vent methane — 7 million cubic feet daily for the next 12 years, enough to heat up to 34,000 homes annually. At today’s prices, that gas would be worth about $21 million per year.

In early October, environmental groups filed a lawsuit asking federal agencies to withdraw the permit, citing the waste of natural gas and the significant contribution to global warming. Venting the methane from existing coal mines is especially ironic when energy companies are drilling for natural gas on relatively undisturbed public lands from Wyoming to New Mexico. It’s “environmental crime and economic insanity combined,” says energy consultant Randy Udall.

The biggest impediment to coal methane capture in the West is the fact that most mines are located on federal land. A mining company with a public-land lease can drill methane drainage wells, but cannot sell or use the methane unless it also leases or owns the natural gas rights, according to the Bureau of Land Management. However, a July ruling by the Interior Board of Land Appeals found that the vented methane at the Aberdeen mine “is not an oil and gas deposit subject to leasing.” Says Pamela Franklin, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Coalbed Methane Outreach Program, “No one knows what the exact process is.”

The BLM considered auctioning natural gas leases in the West Elk’s expansion area in August. Part of it is a Forest Service inventoried roadless area, though, and with the Roadless Rule back in legal limbo, the BLM withdrew the parcels, says Forest Service spokeswoman Lee Ann Loupe. Environmentalists find the lack of interagency coordination frustrating. “The Forest Service is hiding behind the BLM’s skirts,” says Udall. Lack of infrastructure is another problem: At many Western mines, it’s 15 or 20 miles to the nearest pipeline, and methane must be purified and compressed before entering the flow.

The second-best alternative to piping the methane or using it on-site is burning the gas at the well. Flaring or oxidizing converts methane to carbon dioxide and water, significantly decreasing its global warming potential. Oxidizing technology is used at one mine, but flaring is not being done anywhere in the U.S. Coal-mine flaring technology is unproven, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, although Australia and the United Kingdom use it safely. The bigger hindrance to either flaring or oxidizing is lack of a developed market for carbon offsets, says Franklin: “The voluntary carbon credit market is the only incentive, and it’s still nascent.”

Farther East, methane capture has been much more successful. Methane recovery projects at active and abandoned underground coal mines in Alabama, Ohio, Illinois, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania capture at least 46 billion cubic feet of methane annually, enough to heat 600,000 homes.

Several factors account for the difference. In the East and Midwest, pipelines and infrastructure are generally close to mines. Natural gas prices are higher: Even a difference of a couple of dollars per thousand cubic feet is enough to make projects more economically rewarding. Most importantly, the mines are usually on private land with private mineral rights. Laws vary from state to state, but the process for obtaining rights is well established.

For methane-rich coal mines in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, regulatory obstacles need to be cleared before those mines can start trimming their greenhouse-gas emissions — and stop wasting energy. The EPA has pledged to work on the problem with the other agencies involved, but no specific plans exist. A change in attitude is needed, too: “Some (Eastern) coal companies now think of themselves as energy companies, and they make a lot of money from gas,” says Franklin. “Coal companies in the West think of themselves as coal companies. Branching out into different resources is not something they think of culturally.”

need new regs or statute
Snark E. Fed
Snark E. Fed
Nov 08, 2008 03:19 PM
It seems odd that somehow agencies (the FS and BLM) are expected to regulate methane when there are no regulations for them to do so.

The only answer is for EPA to get after regs for greenhouse gases (a very controversial thing, of which methane from coal mines is a teeny-tiny part, which could go on for years), or for a federal statute to deal with it surgically- coal mines on federal land in Utah and Colorado are required to capture methane. Congress folk.. are you listening? Or some other policy option that involves giving some agency regulatory authority.

PS this is a unique issue in that all sides agree on the desired outcome --but the litigants seem to continue to be barking up the wrong tree..

Sorting out the issues
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson
Nov 11, 2008 03:20 PM
Dear Snark,
Thanks for your comments. The story is not suggesting that the Forest Service and BLM should regulate methane -- that is, as you correctly note, the job of the EPA. What the other agencies can do is to make it easier for coal mines to either use or destroy methane instead of pumping it into the air. The BLM and FS need to develop a rational process for leasing natural gas rights to coal mines, and MSHA needs to test and promote the use of flaring and oxidizing. A developed carbon credit market would help too -- that would give mines financial incentive to either destroy or capture their methane.

Best regards,
Jodi Peterson
Associate Editor
IWhy Not Pursue Requiring Capture?
Snark E. Fed
Snark E. Fed
Nov 14, 2008 06:32 AM
Dear Jodi,

That will solve part of the problem - but the lease language allows the lessee to, but does not require them to, capture the methane. So, the lease in and of itself does not solve the problem of venting the methane into the atmosphere.

Perhaps changing the BLM regulations (not sure that there is an FS piece to this) is an intermediate and helpful step (at least when the price is high), but as long as we are proposing solutions, why not go all the way to the most desirable goal- requiring capture?

It just seems to me that if the most desirable goal is to require capture, under this requirement the leasing regulations might not fit at all. Why not just require it and give the mine the rights to it? With maybe a percentage of what they sell on the market to the government.

Is this silly...
Nov 16, 2008 05:55 PM
in today's environmental circumustanes, or what?

For coal mines to treat methane emissions as waste, which is what this is, is ridiculous, as well.

I agree with Snark, it should be required. A minimum requirement should be containment. This is a 19th century practice and should not be allowed today.

And if the income numbers cited are realistic, Jodi, it shouldn't need a tax credit boost. The coal industry is deep enough into federal largesse already. I've not read this report in detail, but it suggests coal mining is taking in a billion a year, refined coal $2 billion, making coal the most subsidized electrical source. At over forty percent, it dwarfs most others. Nuclear and renewables together receive about 30% less.


This isn't to say their participating in a carbon credit program would be a bad thing. I'd just want to know the full story about public funds for coal now before handing them something they don't need. Perhaps some other subsidy supplanted...?
Nov 16, 2008 06:02 PM
I do know how to spell circumstances, actually...

Mr/Ms Webmaster, it would be nice to be able to edit after saving, before posting...