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Know the West

Sometimes environmentalists miss the boat


If you’re concerned about global warming, you must wonder what some environmentalists were thinking in Colorado this year: Many opposed legislation that would have yielded a rapid reduction in emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Instead, they persuaded leaders in the Colorado Senate to sequester the bill until the waning days of the Legislature’s annual session. The strategy worked; the bill never got voted on. Instead, the legislation -- and the environment -- became collateral damage in a totally unrelated issue: the uncouth battle over Colorado’s official attitude toward civil unions.

Methane is nasty stuff, as coal miners and sewage treatment plant operators have always known. In confined spaces, it is deadly and explosive. Released into the atmosphere, it traps heat, and over a 20-year time frame, the direct, irradiative effect of methane is 72 times stronger than that of carbon dioxide.

Reducing atmospheric methane would have immediate effect in slowing global warming, although it’s hardly the only answer. But climate change mitigation, if it happens, will come together in a lot of small pieces, with, perhaps, a few big ones.

Enter Tom Vessels, who has been involved in the development of fossil fuels for 40 years. Some years ago, he got interested in harnessing the power of methane emissions from coal mines. He visited Europe, where the technology is used in several places, including Germany.

The Germans have invested heavily in wind, as well as in solar panels, despite their cloudier skies. Today, 18 percent of German electricity comes from renewable sources, compared to 11 percent in the United States. They have also harnessed the methane being emitted from their coal mines. They are a practical people.

In western Colorado, Vessels got a promise from one progressive cooperative, Holy Cross Energy, to buy the electricity created by burning methane from an existing coal mine near the town of Paonia. The cooperative will pay a premium, because of its internal goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

To fully exploit the resource, producing potentially 30 to 50 megawatts of electricity, however, Vessels needed a stronger market incentive. One avenue was to allow methane-produced electricity to count under the state’s standard for renewable energy. Two legislators in Colorado, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, introduced bills that would have allowed what’s called the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard to drive this innovation.

How did the environmental community respond? They hated it. One group sent an email broadcast warning that “polluter-friendly legislators have our renewable energy standard on the chopping block.”

Huh? Polluter-friendly legislators? The irony here, perhaps, is that Republicans supported this measure to reduce a potent greenhouse gas. Most Democrats opposed it.

Why was there resistance to a forthright way to trim greenhouse gases? Metaphors of tents come to mind. Many environmentalists seemed to fear the camel of fossil fuels getting its nose underneath the tent of the portfolio standard. Coal-mine methane one day, and what’s next? Fugitive emissions from natural gas drilling? And then natural gas itself? “I just can’t support methane being counted as a renewable fuel,” an environmentalist told me.

I understand the heartburn. But semantics aside, here’s a sobering fact: Capturing the methane from just one gassy coal mine in Colorado would accomplish as much climate protection as all of the solar panels so far erected in Colorado.

That calculation comes from climate warrior Randy Udall, who had the first grid-connected solar system in his part of Colorado. Some years ago, he persuaded Aspen to spend money earmarked for carbon reduction efforts to Utah to harness coal mine emissions. That took some selling, but his out-of-the-box argument in unassailable. Greenhouse gas emissions know no borders. And methane, he says, is carbon on steroids. That’s why coal mines represent such a wonderful opportunity.

Granted, the Bureau of Land Management, as administer of mineral rights, recently announced it wants to require mine owners to make use of the methane they vent. But implementing that regulation could take years.

Colorado currently is a national leader in transitioning electricity utilities away from carbon emissions, with a 30 percent mandate for the investor-owned utilities and 10 percent for the electrical cooperatives and municipal utilities. Even smaller targets were fiercely opposed just eight years ago. Now, they’ve being handled nicely, and the lights haven’t gone out and the economy hasn’t shut down, at least not because of this.

It’s time to set the bar higher: 40 percent is being discussed, and the creation of a somewhat broader tent that will include coal-mine methane capture. That’s good. We need a more agnostic, open-minded attitude toward technology, one defined by the problem. Renewables are a means to an end, not the end itself.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about energy policy in Denver.