BLM pulls coal mine expansion permit to take harder look at methane capture for power

Holy Cross Energy working on plan to turn greenhouse gas into electricity

By David O. Williams
Real AspenMarch 17, 2011
Environmental groups trying to compel the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to mitigate the climate change impacts of coal mine methane are encouraged by Wednesday's BLM decision to reconsider approval of a mine expansion on Colorado's Western Slope.

The BLM last week asked the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) to remand its environmental assessment (EA) and decision to approve expansion of Oxbow Mining's Elk Creek coal mine near Somerset. Wednesday the IBLA granted that request and vacated the BLM's January decision approving the expansion.

“We wanted to take another look at strengthening that EA and trying to address some concerns that had been raised by some environmental groups,” BLM Colorado spokesman Steven Hall said. Holy Cross Energy, the electric co-op for the Vail Valley, is working on a plan to capture methane from a Western Slope coal mine and convert it into power.

WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club last month filed an appeal of the BLM's approval of the expansion, arguing via the environmental law firm Earthjustice that the BLM failed to take into account the “one-two punch” of carbon dioxide produced by burning the coal in power plants and the discharge of methane gas into the atmosphere at the actual mine site.

In their appeal, the groups cited BLM data showing the mine will vent at least 5.1 million cubic feet of methane into the air on a daily basis. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says methane is 20 times more potent as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

However, coal mines have to vent methane so that coal can be safely mined beneath the surface without a potentially deadly explosion like last year's Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia that killed 29 miners. That disaster put more focus on safety at Colorado coal mines.

The BLM's own analysis reveals that methane venting at the Elk Creek Mine will release the equivalent of one million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year – or about 1 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions released in the state

The latest BLM decision to take another look at coal mine methane is a boost for environmentalists who want the federal agency to require the industry to either capture methane – the main constituent of natural gas – and produce electricity, or flare it off to reduce its climate-change impacts.

“This isn't about shutting down coal mining; it's about seizing opportunities to protect clean air, the climate, and public health,” said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians. “More importantly, it's about finding every opportunity possible to recover value.

“In this case, recovering methane from the Elk Creek Mine would bring in much-needed revenue and create new jobs. This is a win-win opportunity, and we support the Bureau of Land Management's decision to take another look at this issue.”

However, it's unclear to what degree the BLM will require Oxbow Mining to either capture or flare methane at the Elk Creek Mine.

“We have rewritten the environmental assessment to account for issues related to coal mine methane and climate change and we're currently reviewing it in the state office and the solicitor is doing it also,” the BLM's Jim Sample said. “The next step will be for our state director to review it and sign it and we'll post it.”

An Oxbow official last year told the Colorado Independent it was too dangerous to flare off methane and impractical to capture it and convert it to electricity. However, credible industry groups are trying to work out ways to do exactly that, exploring plans to convert methane into power and reduce the amount of gas that's simply vented into the atmosphere.

The state's natural gas industry has been blasted recently by the coal industry for leaking methane into the atmosphere during production – specifically during hydraulic fracturing — and then again during transport of natural gas via pipelines.

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