Colorado coal mine rep inaccurately claims methane flaring illegal

Obviously pleased with last week’s roadless ruling allowing Oxbow Mining to vent more methane at is Elk Creek Mine near Paonia, a company spokesman over the weekend also took the opportunity to skewer environmentalists on the issue of methane capture or flaring.

In an email response to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s decision on Thursday to allow a road-building exemption for the Elk Creek Mine, which is in an inventoried roadless area (IRL), Oxbow spokesman Brad Goldstein Saturday was understandably satisfied.

“The U.S. Forest service has always managed the IRA in question as multiple-use. There are currently more than 12 miles of roads in this one IRA, all of them permanent and existing long before our coal mine was in existence. We disagree with various ideological groups who wish, for political purposes, to treat this area as roadless. The evidence is just the opposite,” Goldstein wrote.

“We also believe that Secretary Vilsack, Congressman John Salazar and Gov Bill Ritter all came to the proper decision on this issue. These 12 venting wells will insure a safe working environment for our 350 employees and help us mine our future reserves.”

Venting methane, or natural gas, which naturally occurs and accumulates in underground coal mines, is a critical and complex issue in the wake of last month’s Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners and may have been caused by improper methane ventilation.

In Colorado, where only one mine made a list of 57 coal operations nationwide subject to surprise federal inspections in the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster, the regulatory debate and activist focus has mostly been on requiring mines to capture and sell or at least flare (burn off) methane gas to combat global warming. The gas is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas.

But methane, drilled for extensively and sold commercially in other parts of the state, is an inconvenience in Colorado coal country along the North Fork of the Gunnison River. The Elk Creek Mine and nearby West Elk Mine have both applied for permission to build roads and drill more methane drainage wells in order to simply release the gas into the atmosphere.

Asked about mounting pressure from regulators and environmentalists to either capture or flare methane, Oxbow’s Goldstein was matter-of-fact but inaccurate: “Against the law per MSHA [Mine Safety and Health Administration],” he wrote. “It would endanger the lives of our employees. It would be a forest fire risk. Not even in the realm of possibility.”

In fact, simply flaring off methane is not illegal. MSHA officials in the past have recommended more study of flaring technology before signing off on the process at the West Elk Mine, but other MSHA officials have said the agency would be open to such a solution.

“There is a long and safe history of flaring waste gas and volatile hydrocarbons in the petroleum and chemical industries,” wrote Erik Sherer, a mining engineer with the MSHA’s Division of Safety. He was weighing in on the Forest Service environmental impact statement (EIS) for the West Elk expansion in 2007. “MSHA would approve flaring of methane drainage if appropriate protections are incorporated into the flaring system.”

There are at least five active coal mines currently flaring methane in the United Kingdom, and several more are capturing methane for resale. Another mine is conducting coal mine methane flaring in Wyoming.

“But as we’ve said all along, flaring should be a last resort,” said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group in Denver that sued the federal government to compel West Elk to capture or flare methane. “First and foremost, capture and use should be utilized. Unfortunately, Oxbow doesn’t seem to be willing to address this at all [at Elk Creek], and even worse, the Forest Service and BLM seem perfectly willing to go along with the company.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did admonish the Forest Service for not at least considering the cost benefits of capture or flaring at West Elk, resulting in those alternatives being included in the final EIS for the project. The EPA cited a 2007 Supreme Court decision mandating the agency begin regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

But capturing methane for commercial use in Colorado comes with a whole host of regulatory hurdles, many of them associated with lack of access to markets. Unlike many eastern coal mines, where facilities are in close proximity to natural gas pipelines, Colorado’s coal mines are some distance from major gas fields.

There are also issues concerning mineral rights because coal companies don’t typically hold the rights to the natural gas. And often the vented methane needs to be processed to remove impurities such as dust and other chemicals found in underground coal mines, meaning there’s an added layer of expense beyond just capturing the gas.

Still, just venting valuable gas into the atmosphere in this day and age of energy conservation and mitigating global warming impacts doesn’t make much sense, critics say. The EPA’s Coalbed Methane Outreach Program (CMOP) has been encouraging companies to voluntarily capture or flare methane for years.

It has no regulatory power beyond that. But things could change under climate change legislation currently being considered in the U.S. Senate.

“It’s unclear if the Colorado mines don’t want to know the facts, or are ignoring them because they’d rather not spend the money,” said EarthJustice environmental attorney Ted Zukoski. “The irony is that the mine in Wyoming may actually be making money from flaring, because the mine gets carbon credits for burning the methane pollution that would otherwise be released. So this is an opportunity to make the [Elk Creek] mine a profit that it’s ignoring.”

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