CVEPA Views By John Armstrong

The view from the Dutch Creek Mine Number One, above Redstone, was breathtaking but the air was breathless. The stillness made the constant coursing of the methane gas from the old mine portal even more pronounced. 

Chris Caskey is a climatologist from Paonia and owner of the Delta Brick and Climate Company. This October, Caskey invited a sundry group of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management rangers, staff from the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, a Pitkin County Open Space board trustee and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) board members to climb to the mine portal at 10,500 feet and observe the methane vent. Shrubs close to the vent holes waved back and forth constantly. Caskey is the driving force behind the effort to mitigate the destructive methane emanating from the Mid-Continent Coal and Coke Mine, which was decommissioned in 1991.

“Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere. The atmospheric concentration of methane is increasing faster now than at any time since the 1980s,” he revealed. 

Estimates say, the “gas and oil industry was emitting at least 13 million metric tons of methane a year, enough natural gas to fuel 10 million homes” (source: Environmental Defense Fund). 

The four abandoned mine portals reportedly account for about 50% of the annual output of greenhouse gas in Pitkin County. Scientists trust that this quantity will sustain for at least another 20 years. Upon arriving at the vent, Caskey activated an instrument which measured the ambient methane concentration of the gas, around 1.6%. While not flammable, this figure is voluminous flowing 24/7, all year. This problem is widespread at active and retired coal mines across the West. 

Methane was a hot topic at the Glasgow Climate Summit, so what do we do with it? Caskey is a chemist with a doctorate and is a former research assistant professor at the Colorado School of Mines.

He is passionate about climate change and has some big ideas. Caskey recognizes three means of dealing with the gas: 1: status quo/ do nothing 2: flare and destroy the methane by burning it off on-site in a tall pipe 3: capture the gas at the source, pipe it down to a generating facility in Coal Basin and burn it to produce electricity. Caskey is seeking a grant which will provide funding for accurately measuring the location and concentration of the gas by helicopter-aided exploration.

Who doesn’t want to destroy the methane, slow global warming and refresh clean air? Like everything in life, each action affects everything around it. The more CVEPA learns, the more questions we have. Board members debate the environmental benefits v. detriments. A tsunami of rules and regulations, some of them yet unwritten, would need to be navigated before any project could begin.

The mine portals are accessed by a network of wide, stable roads. Existing electrical lines in the lower Basin could transfer power production to the grid. There is a large flat area suitable for construction of an electrical generation plant. Methane could be destroyed and significant energy provided to the public. That technology is already in use at the old Somerset Mine, which provides most of the power for the Aspen Ski Company’s four mountain resorts from methane generation.

Redstone resident and CVEPA board member Chuck Downey was part of the mine reclamation effort which CVEPA helped complete. Coal Basin is sacred ground to Downey. “Thirty years ago a massive revegetation program was undertaken in Coal Basin,” he said. “This program took six years to complete at a cost of over five million dollars. The dramatic re-growth of a total environment now supports a rich and diverse variety of wildlife. The proposed project would require a significant disturbance to re-vegetated land to open the re-vegetated mine roads to provide access for the equipment necessary to capture the methane gas.” Downey added, “Daily visits to each portal will be necessary, including in winter months. It will be necessary to construct a piping system to transport the captured methane to a very loud generating facility in lower Coal Basin. The equipment necessary at each mine portal will need electrical power which will require the construction of a system of overhead power lines to each of the four portals. The environmental impact of such a project on the re-vegetated Coal Basin area is considerable and must be weighed against the benefits gained by a capture and destroy project.” 

Educate yourself on this issue! Search The Sopris Sun and Aspen Journalism for “Coal Basin methane.”

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