The Invisible Plume: Why coal mine methane is worth looking at
Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine is Colorado’s single biggest methane polluter. It spews more of the greenhouse gas each year than the state’s largest oil and gas operator – enough to power almost 30,000 homes. A proposed expansion would push its already massive methane emissions even higher. So why is the otherwise tough-on-methane Hickenlooper administration supporting it?
Somerset, CO — If you know what to look for, you can spot the old well pads in the hills above West Elk Mine. The reclaimed patches of land, carefully restored to their original contours, stand out only as a lighter green against the dark, dense forest. The trees, the Forest Service promises, will grow back later.
Otherwise, to the casual hiker, this tract of Gunnison National Forest offers few hints of the massive coal mine hundreds of feet below. The landscape is lush, the sky clear blue. Only the low thrum of chorus frogs and the occasional passing mule deer break the forest’s silence.
But hike along a certain route, several miles up muddy access roads high in the hills, and you’ll find West Elk’s dirty secret. On a well pad cut flat into the sloping earth sits a loud, smelly exhauster. Day and night, this machine perpetually is pulling methane gas from deep underground and thrusting it into the sky.
Methane vent well pads dot the terrain above the West Elk Mine in Gunnison County, Colorado.
Coal mines account for nearly 10 percent of all methane gas emissions nationwide. In 2014, the most recent year data is available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, West Elk Mine was the single largest methane polluter in Colorado, venting more of the greenhouse gas than even the state’s most methane-polluting oil and gas operator, Encana Oil & Gas.
Unlike methane from oil and gas drilling, coal mine methane remains unregulated at both state and federal levels. As climate change activists see it, this makes neither environmental nor economic sense: In addition to being many times more active a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide, methane is a valuable fuel source. West Elk’s gassy coal seams leak enough of it to potentially heat almost the entire city of Longmont.
But rather than working to capture the thousands of tons of methane West Elk emits annually, or at least destroying it to significantly reduce its global warming impact, the mine’s operators simply vent it into the atmosphere, where the only thing it’s heating is the planet.
Gov. John Hickenlooper has passed strict, groundbreaking methane regulations for the oil and gas industry that are a model for the country. But even though West Elk is the state’s worst methane offender, Hickenlooper supports reinstating a legal exception that would likely allow the mine to significantly expand. If approved, the exception would grant access to nearly 20,000 acres and 170 million more tons of coal, meaning Colorado’s single largest methane polluter could continue venting even more of the potent gas for years to come.
“I hope Governor Hickenlooper and leaders in the Obama administration recognize that this mine would roll back a large portion of the progress we’ve made in tackling methane on the state, national, and even international levels,” said Conservation Colorado Executive Director Pete Maysmith.
”There are myriad reasons not to expand the West Elk Coal Mine,” he added. “But perhaps the most compelling is that this mine would unleash a torrent of methane that threatens to undermine Colorado’s efforts to lead the nation in reducing methane pollution and climate change.”
You can hear the mechanical exhauster long before your legs, weighed down by the thick April mud, make it up the final hill. The destination: well vent E6-6, one of the latest spots where Arch Coal, the corporation that owns West Elk, is currently venting methane from the mine. From afar, the forest sounds almost like a fluorescent-lit room, a faint, droning hum, until you hike closer to the source, where the buzz is overwhelming.
This is public land, but the exhauster is caged behind a chain-link fence on which signs warn of fire hazard. The machine itself is connected to a hole that bores deep into the mine.
Coal mining and methane are inextricably linked. Extracting the carbon-rich fuel requires breaking up hard earth hundreds of feet below ground, creating cracks and fissures that release the long-stored gas into the mineshaft. The older, deeper and blacker the coal, the more methane. The super rich mine seams of Colorado’s North Fork Valley, as it happens, meet that description.
“West Elk is particularly gassy,” explained Scott Braden, an energy advocate with Conservation Colorado.
Methane is nontoxic, but highly flammable — the source of generations of catastrophic explosions that made mining such a dangerous vocation. In the old days, mine operators would send one unlucky worker underground to check for gas pockets, outfitting him with only a torch and a wet blanket to hide under. Now, methane venting is mandatory and highly regulated. Gas meters offer a far less fatal detection tool than human torch-bearers.
The gas that poses a safety risk underground is also harmful when released. Scientists now recognize that methane is between 20 and 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than the better-known warming culprit, carbon dioxide. Though methane only remains in the atmosphere for little over a decade, while CO2 lingers much longer, methane’s heat-trapping properties are more devastating in the short run.
As its climate impacts are becoming better known, methane is finally, albeit slowly, becoming subject to regulation.
Gov. Hickenlooper was hailed as an environmental champion in 2013 when he passed his “zero tolerance” policy on methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Colorado became the first state to impose such a rule, which requires drillers to capture 95 percent of all methane and to find and fix all gas leaks.
But the governor’s low tolerance for methane doesn’t apply to the coal industry. Colorado, like the federal government, doesn’t regulate coal mine methane beyond mandating that large polluters report their emissions to the EPA.
The proposed expansion of West Elk, which would line up 10 million more tons of methane-rich coal for mining, has the potential to undo much of the climate change benefits of the state’s methane rule. While Hickenlooper’s oil and gas regulations are expected to cut methane emissions equivalent to 2.34 million tons of CO2 each year, the coal mine expansion could add 1.2 million CO2-equivalent tons of the gas annually. And none of that, of course, factors in the additional methane emissions that would come from burning the coal.
Said Braden: “The back-of-the-napkin calculation is that you essentially lose the savings of the oil and gas rule by allowing a new coal-based methane source.”
Cases for and against expansion
As an odorless and colorless gas, methane is invisible and imperceptible. That’s partly why it’s allowed to leak in such massive amounts without consequence into the skies above Somerset: No one can see it.
At least, not without an infrared camera.
Earthworks, an environmental advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., bought its forward-looking infrared, or FLIR, camera in 2014. A $100,000 price tag and the need for specialized thermography training usually keep this technology out of the hands of average folks. But Sharon Wilson, a former oil and gas executive who embraced environmental activism after her own land in Texas was fracked in 2008, is fully certified.
Wilson mostly shoots oil and gas leaks and temporary industry disasters. But in late April, she took Earthworks’ FLIR camera into the hills above West Elk to get a look, for the first time ever, at coal mine methane.
West Elk is located in Gunnison County, a mile east of Somerset and about 10 miles east of Paonia, on a combination of private and federal land. Its owner, St. Louis-based Arch Coal, is the nation’s second-largest coal supplier. Notably, Arch filed for bankruptcy in January, citing low coal prices and steep competition from natural gas.
But the company has no plans to stop mining. Since 2012, Arch Coal’s subsidiary, Mountain Coal Company, has sought permission to add 1,721 acres to its existing federal coal leases. Although the acres in question are on U.S. Forest Service land, the Mineral Leasing Act requires that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approve all new coal lease requests on federal land.
Environmentalists had hoped the West Elk expansion would be halted when, in January this year, President Obama ordered a three-year moratorium on all new federal coal leases in order to more carefully consider the environmental impacts of the coal industry. But as it turns out, a legal loophole grandfathering in lease applications that have already been ruled on means the pause doesn’t apply to West Elk.
Still, other obstacles have blocked the mine’s expansion.
West Elk isn’t just asking to dig underground. In order to vent methane from the mine, as safety regulations require, Arch Coal would need to build roads in the new lease areas — paths that would allow the drilling of vent holes and facilitate the transport of the mobile exhausters. That’s a problem because the expanded West Elk leases in question fall on land within Colorado’s Sunset Roadless Area.
For city folk unfamiliar with the designation, a roadless area is a swath of public land that the government says must remain, well, without roads. The BLM can still approve new coal leases in these areas, but mine operators cannot build access roads for transport — or for the generators that vent methane. For its purposes, West Elk needs roads.
When former President Bill Clinton passed the federal roadless rule in 2001, just as he was leaving office, the policy was predictably controversial. Environmentalists praised it, while conservatives and industries that operate on federal land feared losing access to the back-country would cause economic losses. When George W. Bush took over, he suggested that the rule may not last, urging interested states to formulate their own policies instead.
In the end, the federal roadless rule stayed on the books. But Colorado is one of two states – along with Idaho – that passed its own roadless policy, which environmentalists say is comparatively less protective of public lands than its federal counterpart.
The Colorado Roadless Rule governs 4.2 million acres of land, but grants some industries privileges the federal rule doesn’t allow, such as logging in remote areas and backcountry skiing access. Even more contentious, it includes a 19,100-acre exception in the North Fork Valley, where West Elk is located, that allows mining companies to build temporary roads.
In 2012, just before Colorado’s roadless rule passed, Jane Danowitz, then-director of the public lands program at the Washington-based Pew Environment Group, told The New York Times it “would give Colorado, at the end of day, fewer protections than any other state.”
Plenty of supporters countered that the balance between environment and industry was the right choice for Colorado.
“…We believe it’s better for Colorado – that we are able to address our unique environmental circumstances, and our unique economic circumstances, in a way that the 2001 rule simply couldn’t and didn’t,” Mike King, then the executive director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, said in 2012.
When the feds approved the passage of the Colorado roadless rule that year, it seemed that King and coal supporters were victorious.
But environmental groups like WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club weren’t giving up without a fight. They filed a lawsuit accusing multiple federal agencies, including the BLM and Forest Service, of approving both the roadless rule exception in the North Fork Valley and West Elk’s lease modifications without adequately considering the environmental impacts of increased coal mining in the area.
U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson sided with the environmentalists. In 2014, he halted both the roadless rule exception and West Elk’s lease expansion, citing the Forest Service’s failure to adequately consider the climate impacts in its environmental assessments.
The Forest Service, fighting the court’s ruling, is preparing secondary environmental impact statements for both the West Elk expansion and the roadless rule exception. The final reports for both are expected this spring or summer. The coal mine’s expansion, of course, hinges on federal permission to build roads in the roadless area.
Hick weighs in
In January of this year, Hickenlooper’s administration voiced support for the North Fork exemption to the roadless rule.
“…The North Fork coal mining exception was… included in the State of Colorado’s petitions for rulemaking to ensure that the coal mines in that area would be able to expand and continue to provide critical jobs for Coloradans,” King, then Hickenlooper’s top natural resources official, wrote in a letter to the Forest Service.
Though the letter is widely considered an endorsement of the West Elk expansion, the administration won’t comment specifically on the mine. In a statement on the Governor’s support of the roadless exception, Todd Hartman of the Department of Natural Resources called it “part of a balanced rule that respected the economic needs of coal communities and allowed for mining-related road construction.”
But what about West Elk’s already massive methane emissions? And what about the inconsistency between the administration being ahead-of-the-curve tough on oil and gas methane, while letting coal mines off with a free pass to pollute?
When asked about this contradiction, the administration said that soon, coal mines like West Elk may not get away with methane emissions as easily as they have so far.
Hartman said that the administration will weigh in on future projects attempting to take advantage of the North Fork exception, including West Elk’s expansion. He also said that Gov. Hickenlooper “has directed the administration to take certain steps to mitigate the impacts of continued coal mining in the North Fork Valley,” including “ways in which methane emissions from proposed projects can be minimized.”
This would be an important step in curbing Colorado’s biggest source of methane pollution. Notably, the state in March commissioned a report through the Colorado Energy Office analyzing the commercial possibilities for coal mine methane in Colorado.
When asked for specifics about which kinds of methane regulations the administration might impose, spokeswoman Kathy Green said only that the Governor would “apply the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety regulations that are on the books.”
But the regulatory documents on that agency’s website don’t mention methane. And as long as coal mine methane capture and destruction remain voluntary, the coal industry will continue to be able to legally justify inaction.
‘A wonderful neighbor’?
Earthworks’ Wilson, a single mom in her 60s, is a flatlander – a Texan unaccustomed to altitude hiking, especially with her five-pound infrared camera. But, having never before “seen” methane from a coal mine, she was determined not to let health problems or exhaustion keep her from trudging way up the muddy mountains behind West Elk to get the shot.
Upon approaching the methane exhauster, Wilson snapped to attention. Quickly, determinedly, she went to work with her camera at multiple angles and settings, capturing images of the methane plume environmentalists and locals in these parts have long heard about, but can’t see.
Why the fascination with infrared technology? “It exposes the dirty secrets that these fossil fuel industries want to keep hidden,” Wilson said.
Infrared footage shows methane emissions from West Elk Mine. Video by Sharon Wilson, Earthworks.
Arch Coal said West Elk wasn’t able to devote company resources for a tour of the mine and its methane exhausters. Mine employees refused to even respond to calls, emails and multiple voicemails requesting interviews.
Logan Bonacorsi, Arch’s spokeswoman, stressed the economic importance of the mine. She said West Elk currently has over 300 employees. The annual pay and benefits packages of these jobs, she noted, averages over $100,000.
But the coal market is struggling, and Bonacorsi said the proposed expansion is less an opportunity for major growth than a chance simply to keep the mine’s lights on.
“It is important to point out that while it is often discussed as an expansion, it’s really additional reserves to allow the operation to continue mining in the future,” she said in an email. “The addition of mineable coal reserves could extend the life of West Elk’s current mining operations.”
Locals in these parts know how key mining jobs are to their rural economy. Ed Marston, an environmentalist, longtime resident of nearby Paonia and former editor of High Country News, calls himself “a huge fan of coal mining in my valley.” He’s particularly supportive of coal compared to other fossil fuels.
“Coal has coexisted well with communities around it for many decades,” he said. “Coal has been a wonderful neighbor.”
In addition to the jobs it provides, West Elk has been lauded for its adherence to rules. Over the past decade, the mine has won several awards for its safety record and commitment to restoring land disturbed by mining operations.
But financial records suggest the mine’s owner, Arch Coal, may not always have its employees’ and shareholders’ best interests in mind. As Arch Coal’s fortunes have dropped steeply over the past few years, it has cut wages and suspended dividends. Meanwhile, the company’s CEO, John Eaves, saw his pay nearly double from $3.9 million in 2012 to $7.3 million in 2014. And U.S. Securities Exchange Commission filings show that the company paid out $8 million in executive bonuses just one business day before it filed for bankruptcy in January.
The invisible plume
Methane pollution made international news late last year when a natural gas storage facility in Southern California’s Aliso Canyon began pouring thousands of tons of methane into the air each day. The leak forced residents of a massive housing development called Porter Ranch to flee their homes, many complaining of health problems. The blowout was the worst single man-made greenhouse gas accident in history, spewing a total 97,100 metric tons of methane over only four months.
Earthworks’ infrared footage of the leak — which made the invisible gas visible — garnered worldwide attention and alarm. Headlines described the situation with words like “catastrophe” and “disaster.”
Triggering nowhere near the same sense of urgency or concern, West Elk legally and allowably is polluting half of what accidentally leaked from the massive Aliso Canyon blowout — 58,000 tons of methane in 2011, according to the 2012 final environmental impact statement for the expansion. And that’s before the proposed expansion. A governor who claims to be tough on methane and proactive against climate change is supporting the legal exception that would allow the mine to grow and its methane pollution to significantly swell.
Ted Zukoski, an attorney with environmental law firm EarthJustice, doesn’t deny that coal mining is economically important for Colorado. But he says the environmental impacts of Colorado’s roadless rule exemption are too significant to ignore.
Allowing roads to be built on 20,000-acre of purportedly roadless areas in the North Fork Valley would give coal companies like Arch access to 170 million more tons of coal. That much, Zukoski says, would yield additional methane emissions equivalent to 1 to 2 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. Carbon dioxide equivalency is often used as a standard measure in order to simplify the calculation of greenhouse gas emissions. To put that amount in perspective, West Elk released the equivalent of about 650,000 metric tons of CO2 in 2014, according to the EPA. Zukoski expects the additional accessible coal would allow mining for an additional 30 years or more, depending on the coal market, with methane emissions at or above current levels.
Just because methane is a natural byproduct of coal mining doesn’t mean companies have to simply spit it into the atmosphere. Companies could destroy it by flaring it, which is still a waste of potential energy, but far less polluting. Or, even better, they could capture it and harness it as an energy source.
Coal mine methane was added to Colorado’s Renewable Energy Standard as an “eligible energy source” in 2013. That means utility companies get credit for using it when calculating the percentage of renewable energy they use in their operations. Investor-owned utility companies will be required to use at least 30 percent renewables starting in 2020.
But, as Zukoski tells it, West Elk hasn’t properly considered those alternatives. In 2008, he and his team – which included the environmental group WildEarth Guardians – filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service for approving a previous West Elk Mine expansion without examining options beyond simply spilling the valuable methane into the sky.
WildEarth lost its case when the court ruled that capturing methane wasn’t economically feasible, and that therefore the Forest Service was justified in not requiring it as an alternative to methane venting.
Zukoski says the Forest Service made its determination without considering relevant scientific and economic evidence from the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We suggested several ways the Forest Service could have limited methane emissions for the lease expansions But the Forest Service declined to require or even analyze seriously any of these measures,” he said.
Zukoski called the agency’s excuses for not considering the measures “bogus.” In his mind, the Forest Service is ignoring the problem of coal mine methane pollution while pretending to take action.
In a 2008 op-ed in the Denver Post, Charlie Richmond, former Forest Service supervisor for the Gunnison National Forest, promised that the agency would continue to “lead the charge” on methane use. “Finding just the right solution for utilization of methane, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions, will not happen overnight but is on the nearby horizon,” Richmond wrote.
“Eight years after that statement, the official Forest Service position remains that there is nothing to be done about methane at the West Elk Mine,” Zukoski said.
“So much for ‘leading the charge,'” he said.
To the naked eye, the methane perpetually spewing from West Elk’s E6-6 exhauster is indiscernible. But on the infrared camera’s viewing screen, the gas is starkly clear. Two black plumes billow from vents, not in bursts, but in dark, thick clouds that can be seen wafting through pine trees into sky above the West Elk Mountains and upwards into the atmosphere where science tells it will trap the sun’s heat within the earth’s atmosphere, slowly and steadily heating the planet.
“It’s horrifying,” said Wilson.
According to a recent report released by the Colorado Energy Office, West Elk currently employs a small amount of waste methane to heat the mine. In 2013, heat generation utilized 3.7 percent of the mine’s total methane emissions.
West Elk Mine may not be interested in harnessing its remaining waste methane. But one Denver-based company, Vessels Coal Gas, is.
Vessels has researched and furthered the development of methane capture and flaring technologies in order to prevent valuable waste methane from wafting into the sky.
The company has a partnership with another Somerset-area mining operation, Oxbow’s Elk Creek Mine. Though the mine itself went idle in 2013, a methane capture system implemented the year before is still running. Methane from Elk Creek currently generates three megawatts of electricity, which is powering all operations at Aspen Ski Company.
In addition to climate-savvy ski companies, capturing waste methane might make sense for some rural communities near coal mines. But existing regulations and contracts typically prevent local utilities from adding waste methane to their portfolios, which activists are working to remedy.
If captured, methane from West Elk could power almost 30,000 homes — nearly every home in Longmont.
But price is an obstacle. Given the high cost of cleaning methane, “it’s not super economic” as a direct fuel source, admitted Evan Vessels, an administrator and son of company founder Tom Vessels. He said that Aspen Ski Company, which paid a premium to set up its methane capture operation at Elk Creek, was more interested in broadening its energy portfolio than in cost savings.
Another way to reduce methane emissions is to simply flare, or burn, the leaking gas. Though flaring doesn’t capture any energy or electricity potential, and still emits greenhouse gases, it converts methane into much smaller amounts of CO2. The net global warming impact of flared methane is about 80 percent less than vented gas.
California encourages methane flaring with its carbon credit cap-and-trade market. Flared methane earns credits, which Vessels Coal Gas sells for about $10 each on California’s market. If Colorado created such a market — or if Congress implemented a nationwide price on carbon — monetizing waste methane would be even easier.
“The reason why it makes business sense to vent methane is because we don’t put a price on climate pollution,” said Earthworks Executive Director Jennifer Krill. “That’s got to change.”
Krill said it’s time for the state to reckon with the troubling reality of coal mine methane.
“The global climate shouldn’t be the dumping ground for any industry, and Colorado recognizes that when it comes to both the oil and gas industry, and when it comes to burning coal.”
Now, she added, “the challenge is to stop letting coal mining dump its pollution in our global climate.”
But as things stand, even methane flaring, which is a comparatively easy and inexpensive practice — “It’s pennies,” Evan Vessels said — fails to win over coal companies in Colorado.
“They’re just uncooperative,” Vessels said.
The problem, according to both owner and son, is that coal companies feel entitled to all revenue generated from what they feel is “their” resource. Why pay a middleman to capture or flare your methane when you can do it yourself for free?
But the reality is that most coal companies aren’t doing it themselves because they’re typically too busy with daily operations. Oxbow’s Elk Creek Mine, in its partnership with Aspen Ski Company, is the only mine in the state to make use of the technology.
Arch Coal told The Independent that it “continue[s] to explore opportunities for the potential future viability of the commercial use of methane.”
But Evan Vessels counters that’s simply not true.
“They’re sitting around, and we are begging them to let us make them money,” he said.
In the meantime, it’s with impunity that West Elk and other underground coal mines keep spewing their invisible of methane from exhausters so remote that nobody notices or thinks much about their effect on the planet.
And why not? Without regulations like the kind Colorado has set for oil and gas, there’s nothing stopping them.
Cover photo credit: Sharon Wilson, Earthworks; story photos by Kelsey Ray
UPDATE 5/3/2016: This story has been updated to include the fact that West Elk currently uses a small portion of its waste methane to heat the mine. In 2013, 3.7 percent of the mine’s methane emissions were utilized for this purpose.
Correction May 4, 2016: This story orginally stated Hickenlooper’s oil and gas regulations are expected to cut methane emissions equivalent to 2.34 tons of CO2 each year. In fact, they are expected to cut methane emissions by 2.34 million tons of CO2.
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