Could fugitive methane help out remote communities?

The greenhouse gas that seeps from underground is both a problem and opportunity.

 

Taku Ide is tall and thin and sharply dressed in a blazer, checked button-up shirt and skinny jeans when he meets me on a May morning in a Durango, Colorado, coffee shop. His black-framed, thick glasses up his nerd credentials, though he doesn’t need it: Trained as a petroleum engineer, he spent ten years at Stanford during the aughts, much of it doing graduate work under the tutelage of Lynn Orr, who went on to become an undersecretary at the federal Department of Energy.

A few years into his studies, which included too much time in front of a computer screen, he started getting restless. So when the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in southwest Colorado called looking for help with naturally-occurring underground coal fires on their land that were virtually impossible to extinguish, he jumped at the chance to get out in the field. He came away from the experience with a vision that could help the climate, and harness fugitive methane emissions to provide power to remote, energy-poor communities.

carbonmountain1-jpg
Carbon 'Moving' Mountain, in foreground, is an especially volatile section of the Hogback Monocline, in Colorado and New Mexico, where a coal formation is exposed and leaks huge quantities of methane.
Jonathan Thompson

Along the edge of the San Juan Basin, a hydrocarbon-rich area that straddles the New Mexico-Colorado line, methane — a greenhouse gas some 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide — oozes out of the earth naturally. The gas seeps from an outcrop of the Fruitland coal formation, the remnant of an ancient swamp that underlies much of the area. Such geologic seeps have likely existed for millennia. Stories of the earth’s historic flatulence are legion: Wells and streams into which methane had naturally seeped were set aflame, and Carbon “Moving” Mountain south of Durango turned violent in the 1930s, shifting, shrugging and spitting boulders down its slopes, possibly the result of methane meeting up with coal fires and exploding.

But in the early 1990s, soon after a coalbed methane boom in the region, the seeps got worse. Underground coal fires, ignited by lightning, forest fires, or spontaneous combustion, particularly ones on Southern Ute land, intensified. Domestic wells that had run clean for years suddenly yielded flammable water, and huge swaths of vegetation near the coal outcrop perished. Recent monitoring has found that these geologic seeps now emit more than 50,000 metric tons of methane each year, contributing to climate change and what we now know as the Four Corners Methane Hot Spot.

As they dug into the problem, Ide and his colleagues soon understood that the fire on Southern Ute land was fueled not only by coal, but also by naturally seeping methane (and the natural seeps, in turn, were probably exacerbated by coalbed methane drilling). As they zoomed their research lens outward, they found that such fires along the rims of basins like the San Juan, were common worldwide, and that one in four were being fueled by similar methane seeps.

“Is there a way to kill two birds with one stone … to intercept the methane before it reaches the fire and to put it to use?’” Ide remembers asking. “The challenge is to understand at a molecular level how and why the methane is getting there.” Working off of Ide’s research, the tribe’s energy department implemented an innovative solution, a “picket fence” of wells upstream of the coal fire that intercept the gas, which is then put into the gathering system, processed and piped to market. Today, the project captures some 250,000 cubic feet of methane per day, robbing the fire of critical fuel and keeping a substantial amount of potent greenhouse gas out of the air.

At around the same time that the Southern Utes were tackling their leaks, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission took the concept to another level on another leaky section of coal outcrop at Texas Creek, northeast of Durango. In a pilot project, methane from the seep is captured by a permeable membrane buried just under the dirt, then channeled to a micro power plant in a small, windowless building. There the methane is combusted, turning a turbine and generating electricity. The power is then fed into the local electrical grid.

This project has kept approximately 13 million cubic feet of methane out of the atmosphere since it began operating in 2009 (some of which is offset by the carbon dioxide emitted through combustion), and has consistently generated around 6,000 kilowatthours of electricity per month, enough to power more than six homes. Though BP owns the surface of the property, neither it nor any other company wants to take ownership of the methane itself. To do so might also mean taking responsibility for the seeps, and the small payoff isn’t worth the potential liability. So the cash earned from selling the electricity goes back into an account for paying for this project and others in the future.

Ide would like to expand this concept, with far more efficient mini-power plants, across the basin and the world. The fuel for his plants would come from natural seeps like those in the San Juan Basin, as well as from underground coal mines, which must vent dangerously explosive methane from tunnels, and methane-leaking abandoned coal mines. The coal outcrop in the San Juan Basin stretches for miles, from Colorado deep into New Mexico and onto the Navajo Nation, where many homes are in desperate need of electricity that could be supplied by such facilities. Similarly, across the Pacific, India is rich with methane seeps, both geologic and coal-mine related, yet its people have unreliable access to energy. Unlike solar panels or wind turbines, these little natural gas power plants could provide round-the-clock electricity to micro-grids attached to homes.

“The technology obviously exists,” says Ide, who in 2011 started Koveva, based in Carbondale, Colorado, to try to realize the vision. “And then there’s getting the buy in. That’s tough. People don’t understand what we're doing. Or why.” Coal miners are usually resistant to capturing and selling or reusing the methane because they’re in the business of digging coal, not drilling for natural gas. And it rarely makes economic sense to build the infrastructure to capture the fuel, which has been at rock-bottom prices for years. Meanwhile, there’s very little motivation, aside from helping the environment, for a natural gas company to try to capture methane from geologic seeps.

For their project, the Southern Utes get carbon credits for the methane they capture, and they sell those credits on the market. But even with that additional cash, the project still isn’t profitable, says Bob Zahradnik, who manages the tribe’s energy enterprises. The prices for carbon and natural gas are simply too low.  

“I think the only lever left is regulation,” says Ide. There’s the “stick” approach of capping emissions so that companies would be forced to capture some or all of their methane emissions or offset them by paying for capture and re-use projects at geologic methane seeps elsewhere. And then there’s the carrot approach, employed by Germany. There, electricity generated from methane recovered from active and abandoned coal mines is considered a renewable resource. As such, electric grid operators are required to connect these mini power plants to the grid, give them priority over non-renewable energy sources and pay a guaranteed feed-in-tariff, just as they must do for solar power. Germany has 37 methane capture projects at abandoned coal mines with more than 113 megawatts of generating capacity.

Thus far, however, no such policies have been included in the Obama administration’s various climate change initiatives. The Clean Power Plan mainly targets carbon dioxide emissions, since power plants emit very little methane (combustion burns it up, converting it to carbon dioxide). Methane emissions rules coming soon from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management focus on emissions from the oil and gas industry only — they don’t yet extend to coal mines, and certainly not to geologic seeps. And rather than capping emissions at a strict level, they simply require the industry to take steps to minimize leaks. These are unlikely to encourage the sort of project Ide has in mind.

Still, Ide says he’s in the early stages of methane capture and electricity generation projects with some coal mines. Meanwhile, he welcomes the attention the Four Corners Hot Spot’s discovery has brought to the methane problem, as well as the flurry of research that has resulted. It may spur companies to focus more on mitigating their own methane problems. Until then, Ide will continue to work on his vision and, as he says, to “bridge the gap between the science part, and the exciting solutions part.”

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor of High Country News. 

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