Colorado Coal Mine Refuses to Capture Methane - Releases Directly into Atmosphere Instead, Depriving Government of $30M

CO coal mine photo

Image: Flickr via Steven Damron

For all their environmental woes, most coal mines in the U.S. at least capture the methane released when the coal is mined. It can then be used for fuel, which in terms of greenhouse gas emissions is tons (ha) better than simply releasing it freely into the atmosphere. However, 12 mines do not capture methane, according to the EPA, including one that is currently expanding and might get away with continuing to use the atmosphere as its methane vent.

It's the West Elk Mine in western Colorado, and Earthjustice is challenging the Forest Service and Department of the Interior's decision to approve the mine expansion. The case rests on upholding the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires those agencies to evaluate the environmental impact of projects and to consider options to reduce the damage, including greenhouse gas emissions.

Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski said instead, the government has blown off its obligations—despite pressure by the EPA on land management agencies to look at reducing methane pollution.

Nationally, according to Earthjustice, coal mines are responsible for 10 percent of all human-caused methane emissions—which is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2—yet no standards exist to control these emissions.

The EPA itself has commented both on the West Elk Mine in particular and on alternatives that exist generally for dealing with methane that are preferable to simply releasing methane into the air.

Commenting on the mine's 2008 environmental impact statement, the EPA wrote:

In 2005 the West Elk Mine was the fourth largest emitter of methane from an underground coal mine in the US and is one of only 12 mines in the US that employs degasification system but does not capture the drainage methane... this indicates that this mine's methane emissions are substantial relative to other underground US coal mines.

The EPA then refutes the company's claim that no data exists for electricity generation at coal mines by citing more than 50 projects around the world that do just this, with "off-the-shelf equipment."

Capturing methane for fuel is not only the most environmentally sound option, but as Earthjustice points out, it could also entitle the government to royalties from gas sales, since the land is federally-owned; with the value of the gas estimated at more than $250 million as the mine expands, that would likely translate to about $30 million in royalties for the government.

In the statement, the EPA also notes that while the oil and gas industry routinely uses flaring as a standard safety practice, which would be a second option for reducing the greenhouse gas potential of the methane released, coal mining has not. This is "not due to the lack of availability of the technology or to any decision by MSHA, but rather may be from a lack of interest by the industry."

Mountain Coal, the company that operates the mine, has refused to consider either burning the methane for fuel or flaring it for safety, claiming both would be economically infeasible.

Earthjustice believes Mountain Coal's economic analysis was flawed, a claim Zukoski backed up by citing an independent review by economist Dr. Tom Power: Mountain Coal's conclusion "is tied to Mountain Coal's assumption that there is no economic value associated with the reduction in the emissions of the powerful greenhouse gases the West Elk Mine is currently emitting in large volumes."

More on methane emissions and climate change
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Meat and Climate Change: It's Even Worse Than We Imagined
What's My Cheeseburger Got to Do with Deforestation and Changing Weather Patterns?
Steak 'n Bake? 51% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Now Come From Meat & Dairy Industry

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