State Rep. Bradford pushes mine development despite methane concerns

Rep. Laura Bradford, R-Collbran, has been pressuring the governor’s office and U.S. Rep. John Salazar to continue Bush Administration fast-tracking of the Red Cliff coal mine west of Grand Junction. But her lobbying ignores a couple of fairly glaring and clearly inconvenient truths.

<em>Rep. Bradford, R-Colburn (Rocky Mountain News/Flickr)</em>

Rep. Bradford, R-Colburn (Rocky Mountain News/Flickr)

First, according to conservationists and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project -– part of which would encroach on the proposed Hunter Canyon wilderness area — doesn’t really explore the alternatives for capturing or flaring off coal-mine methane.

Secondly, while the analysis conducted by the Bureau of Land Management, the agency overseeing the public lands near Mack where the mine would operate, concludes significant amounts of methane will be released, there is no detailed plan for the number of roads and well pads needed to vent the valuable methane gas into the atmosphere.

“It’s also known as natural gas, which we’re poking holes all over the state to desperately get out of the ground,” said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski, adding methane is 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and that methane venting by coal mines in the North Fork Valley adds up to more than 1 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

“If you’re trying to figure out some low-hanging fruit, those few holes they’ve drilled to blow the methane out are significant contributors to the state’s global warming,” he said. “It’s also lost revenue to the state; you’re just pumping the money away. You could get a royalty for that that could benefit the taxpayers of Colorado and the federal government.”

Highly explosive methane has to be vented to safely operate a coal mine, but methane capture represents a significant expense for coal-mining operations and a complicated leasing and royalty issue for the BLM. The EPA, however, wants the issue of capture and resale dealt with at the proposed Red Cliff mine.

Photo of the Red Cliff mining area courtesy Earthjustice

Photo of the Red Cliff mining area courtesy Earthjustice

“The potential for greenhouse gas emission reductions would be significant and BLM should disclose in the final EIS what administrative actions can be taken in the coal leases to require the lessee to legally capture this methane,” Larry Svoboda of the EPA’s Denver office wrote to the BLM in late March.

The Red Cliff mine could pump up to 5 billion cubic feet of methane a year into the atmosphere, or the equivalent of 1 to 2 megatons of carbon dioxide. As part of its voluntary Coalbed Methane Outreach Program, the EPA estimates that 20 participating active underground coal mines in the United States prevented 180 billion cubic feet of methane from entering the atmosphere in 2006, or the equivalent of about 73 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

“The BLM has been sort of twiddling its thumbs and trying to figure out these things for a long time,” Zukoski said. “But at Red Cliff they have an opportunity to do something that arguably you didn’t have an opportunity to do at the West Elk [coal mine in the North Fork of the Gunnison].”

Earthjustice is suing the U.S. Forest Service for permitting the West Elk mine to vent methane without adequately considering capturing the gas or flaring it, which reduces its greenhouse gas impacts by 95 percent.

“At West Elk you have a mine that’s a going concern and they want to keep mining coal, and if they don’t keep mining coal they have to lay off a bunch of people if they don’t figure this out. At Red Cliff you’re starting from scratch. There’s no one employed by that except the P.R. flacks.”

Bradford, a Collbran Republican who beat out current Colorado Secretary of State Bernie Buescher in a state House race last fall, wants Gov. Bill Ritter’s office to intervene and compel Xcel Energy to keep the Cameo power plant open until 2012 to avoid layoffs at the McClane Canyon coal mine, which supplies the power plant.

That would be enough time for the Red Cliff mine, owned by the same company, to come online despite environmental analysis delays, Bradford says. She also wants Salazar to intervene at the federal level to speed up the EIS process.

But Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel the governor won’t intervene in what was essentially a business decision by Xcel to mothball an obsolete power plant.

Burning natural gas for power is about 50-percent cleaner than burning coal – a fact Ritter has touted in pushing for greater recognition of the natural gas industry in proposed federal climate change legislation – but simply releasing methane into the atmosphere makes coal an even dirtier power source.

Still, the Ritter administration has recognized the economic contribution of the state’s coal-mining industry in its proposed roadless rule, which it’s pushing to have incorporated in any federal rulemaking process governing the management of largely undeveloped public lands.

“We have an economy in the North Fork that is incredibly dependent upon those coal industry jobs, and the ability of the coal areas to expand and remain viable for the next 15 to 20 years is important to that area and to Colorado in general,” Mike King, deputy director of Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said in an earlier interview.

“In that area right now there’s 29,000 acres that will stay in roadless but be given the ability to develop coal in the interim and then reclaim everything back to a roadless category when they’re done.”

Bradford is generally dismayed by what she considers the Ritter administration’s tarnishing of the state’s reputation as a good place to conduct all types of business, not just mining and oil and gas extraction.

“He’s done considerable damage to … the perception that Colorado is not open and friendly as a business-friendly state in all sectors of business – manufacturing, tourism, across the whole thing,” Bradford said in a previous interview.

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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