On Thursday, March 31, approximately 70 people gathered at the Third Street Center for a presentation about a potential methane capture project in Coal Basin, near Redstone. Coal Basin was once the site of a large coal mining operation that removed an estimated 22 million tons of coal during its lifetime. Shuttered in the early ‘90s, the mine continues to emit methane gas to this day.
According to the evening’s presentation, methane is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to warming the climate. The project proponents estimate that 10,000 tons of methane escape the mine each year, causing as much climate warming as the rest of Pitkin County’s emissions combined.
The project is being organized by the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), and the bulk of the presentation was made by consultant Chris Caskey of the Delta Brick and Climate Company. Caskey is involved in the methane capture and electricity generation occurring at the recently closed coal mine in Somerset, and is a former Colorado School of Mines research assistant professor.
According to two reports, one by the Colorado Energy Office and another by the Environmental Protection Agency, the mines in Coal Basin are some of the gassiest in the state, making them targets for reducing climate warming pollution. Those reports rely on estimates, and the working group is now seeking permission from the United States Forest Service (USFS) to do a “flow test” at the largest of the Coal Basin mines. The Bureau of Land Management will also be involved, as they manage the mineral rights.
A flow test would involve some sealing of smaller mine leaks, pipes to collect methane and measure it and an oxidizer to destroy the methane as it comes to the surface. This process would involve a USFS permit, road access through Coal Basin Ranch via a USFS easement, road access to the mine opening and a footprint of activity to host the equipment.
Neighboring property owner Crystal Basin Holdings, the LLC that owns Coal Basin Ranch, and its umbrella organization, Catena Foundation, are also planning to survey the methane emissions in Coal Basin this year in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund and Colorado State University. Their parallel effort hopes to quantify the amount of methane coming out of the mines without the need to reopen the road.
Of the relatively small number of abandoned mine methane capture projects in the United States, Caskey isn’t aware of any on public land. This creates challenges for the Coal Basin project, as there isn’t a clear regulatory pathway for the project to pursue and for the public agencies to follow. If successful, this project could create that pathway for similar projects around the country.
The results of the flow test should tell the working group how much methane is actually leaking and what its quality is. Low quality methane could be burned in high efficiency oxidizers — sometimes referred to as flares — turning the potent greenhouse gas into less-potent carbon dioxide. Caskey explained that the oxidizers being considered are different from open-flame flares and wouldn’t have visible flames or smoke. If the methane is high quality, it could be used on-site to generate electricity.
Holy Cross owns a powerline in Coal Basin, which historically provided electricity to the mine and is now maintained for redundancy. This existing powerline could carry electricity created in Coal Basin. Coal mine methane qualifies as a renewable energy source in Colorado, and could help Holy Cross meet its goal of 100% renewable energy by 2030.
“It’s a 24/7 resource, which is appealing, as many other renewable resources are not,” said Chris Bilby of Holy Cross at the meeting. “It seems like a win-win. We can help the environment out and create renewable energy.” Holy Cross estimates that the electricity generated there could power the whole Crystal Valley.
CORE is set to receive $1.2 million in federal funding to pursue coal mine methane destruction. Pitkin County has also committed up to $200,000 to the effort. The cost to just destroy the methane is estimated to be $2 million. An estimated $8 million could build a small power plant, if the methane is high-quality enough. But $15 million is the potential price tag for a quieter, smaller-footprint power plant.
At the meeting, Caskey explained that the project probably wouldn’t be appealing to traditional investors, and may be better suited to foundation funding, so that multiple environmental ethics can be prioritized. He quipped, “there are easier ways to make money than this project.”
The purpose of the public meeting was to share information about the potential project and to announce that they are pursuing a permit to perform a flow test. The residents of the Crystal Valley have a long history of staunch organizing to fight projects they don’t agree with, and community buy-in will likely be essential to a successful project. According to a Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association opinion-piece published in The Sopris Sun on November 23, 2021, more than $5 million was spent by local groups to restore wildlife habitat in Coal Basin after the mines shut down more than 30 years ago.
A second informational meeting was held in Redstone on April 4 and a third meeting is planned but not yet scheduled. For more information, contact CORE at aspencore.org