SOMERSET, Colo. – One of Colorado’s larger sources of greenhouse gas emissions is something few people see, a coal mine located an hour or two from both Crested Butte and Aspen.
There, invisibly, methane wafts into the atmosphere, trapping heat. That methane has now become a major issue as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper tries to balance economic and environmental goals.
He did so last week with a Solomon-like gesture. He endorsed a proposal to approve a royalty rate reduction at the West Elk Mine from 8 to 5 percent for operations in a new coal seam that Arch Coal, the operator, says will be economically challenging.
But in return for that royalty reduction, Hickenlooper wants to see a “good-faith commitment to dedicating significant time and resources” to an effort to capture methane vented from the mine and possibly put it to beneficial use.
Arch plans to bore holes from the surface into the mine to release methane gas. Without venting, miners would be endangered.
A precedent exists for methane capture. In a complicated financing deal, the methane coming from the nearby Elk Creek mine was captured several years ago and is being burned to generate electricity. It still produces carbon dioxide, but methane as measured over the course of a century has 23 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide.
The West Elk alone is responsible for 0.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado, according to the calculations of Ted Zukoski, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represents various groups that oppose the mine expansion. The North Fork mines are said to be among the gassiest in the world.
As of 2015, West Elk’s methane emission were the equivalent of half a million tons of carbon dioxide. Colorado’s largest CO2 producers that same year were the Comanche and Craig power plants, which produced 8.4 million tons and 8.2 million tons of CO2.
This royalty reduction will cost the state, but just how much will depend upon how much coal ends up being mined. Hickenlooper estimated $4 million over a five-year period. Environmentalists, however, calculated lost royalties of up to $12 million.
The Crested Butte-based High Country Conservation Advocates expressed frustration with Hickenlooper’s stance. Matt Reed, the public lands director for the HCCA, said the governor’s office holds that it has little power to limit methane pollution from the mine in cases such as this one, where the federal government is the ultimate decision-maker.
Reed tells the Crested Butte News his group disagrees. The state has power under current law to require permits for coal mine emissions because of its authority to regulate emissions of both volatile organic compounds, which are ozone (smog) precursors, and hazardous air pollutants. They are emitted along with methane. As recently as January, state health regulators said they reserved the right to undertake enforcement action.
The Crested Butte group also points to state law that it says authorizes rules be created to control for emissions of hydrocarbons … and any other chemical substance.”
But Gunnison County Commissioner John Messner sees the Hickenlooper letter sending a “strong message that the analysis, development and implementation of a methane capture and utilization plan is to be expected in the North Fork of Gunnison County and the key word here is that it is to be implemented.”
For the coal mine expansion to go forward, Arch Coal will need a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to build temporary roads into what is now a designated roadless area. That agency’s decision will be posted Friday, Sept. 8, in the Federal Register.
In an editorial a week before the governor’s letter was released, the Grand Junction Sentinel said the “coal industry has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.” It urged him to take exactly the position that he took.
The newspaper—located in a fossil-fuel-friendly-town—went on to urge Hickenlooper to “use the mine as an example of why Colorado needs a carbon credit cap-and-trade market to monetize waste methane.”
Ironically, California’s cap-and-trade is partly the reason why electricity is now being generated from the Elk Creek Mine. Tom Vessels, who put the generating system together, secured money from California, because he is reducing a greenhouse gas. But Holy Cross Energy—which serves Aspen and Vail areas—also is paying a premium for the electricity, and Aspen Skiing Co. provided money to ensure that deal happened.
This story originally appeared in Mountain Town News.
Photo of West Elk Mine by WildEarth Guardians