“If they keep mining without methane regulations it would mean more methane for every year they’re in operation.”
Methane emissions from oil and gas operations are regulated, but that’s not the case with methane being emitted from coal mining. Kelsey Ray writes about this in a new investigative report in the Colorado Independent called The Invisible Plume: Why Coal Mine Methane is Worth Looking At.
Ray looks at Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine, east of Paonia in Gunnison County on the Western Slope. It is Colorado’s single biggest methane polluter, spewing more of the greenhouse gas each year than the state’s largest oil and gas operator – enough to power almost 30,000 homes. Ray says this is most likely due to the fact that the EPA has just started regulating methane emissions from oil and gas activity and has yet to regulate the emissions from coal mining. “Right now there is no regulation for coal mine methane and it seems like maybe preferential treatment towards coal mine but I really just think that this is a process.”
Image: A methane exhauster above West Elk Mine. The gas it’s venting can’t be seen by the naked eye. Source: Colorado Independent
Coal mines account for nearly 10 percent of all methane gas emissions nationwide. Ray reports that 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.
For her investigation, Ray connected with Earthworks, an environmental advocacy group based in Washington, D.C, which uses infrared technology to show methane leaks at oil and gas sites around the country. In late April, Earthworks used their infrared camera at West Elk to get a look, for the first time ever, at coal mine methane. “We knew that the mine was venting methane but seeing it on the camera created a visual that was powerful for people who don’t know that.”
Expanding the Mine:
In 2012 a state-wide rule was adopted to protect the more than 4 million acres of roadless lands in Colorado but the legislation contained a loophole for coalmines. While a federal judge closed that loophole, the US Forest Service is seeking to have it reinstated to allow the expansion of the West Elk Mine. “If West Elk mine is able to expand it then will have more coal to mine.” A representative from Arch Coal, the parent company of West Elk Mine told Ray that being able to mine more coal would keep the mine in operation for 3 more years. Ray says that while it’s hard to tell the climate impact of the increased mining activity, it is certain that more methane will be emitted.
“We don’t know how much coal they’re actually going to extract, a lot of that depends on the market, but the expansion would allow them to keep mining for years into the future and if they keep mining without methane regulations it would mean more methane for every year they’re in operation.”
New Uses for Methane:
New research is being done to show how methane could be captured and turned into a fuel 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. Ray cites another mine in Colorado, the Elk Creek Mine, close to the West Elk Mine, where methane is being captured and used to generate about 3 megawatts of electricity. That is currently being used to power all operations at Aspen Ski Company. But Ray cautions that power generation from methane capture is a complicated venture. “It requires an investment, it requires special technology and it’s really important that you find a market for that power and some of these coal mines are in rural areas and so it’s often hard to find a buyer but it’s definitely doable as the Elk Creek Mine operation shows.”