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.”

High Country News Classifieds
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...