Methane power: Use of deadly coal mine gas sparks hope for similar projects

Photos by CHRISTOPHER TOMLINSON/The Daily Sentinel—A generating station at the Oxbow Elk Creek Mine in Somerset operates on methane gas vented from the mine. Oxbow Mining LLC Executive Vice President Mike Ludlow stands inside the plant. Aspen Skiing Co. has invested $5.5 million in the project and will benefit from the electricity. BELOW: The methane pumping station is shown at the Elk Creek Mine in Somerset. The Denver company that oversaw installation of the generator that uses the methane also is producing electricity by way of methane recovery at an inactive mine in Pennsylvania.

With the recent push of a button at a new power plant at a North Fork Valley coal mine, a resource previously lost to the atmosphere began generating electricity equivalent to that used by hundreds of average American homes.

The $6 million plant at the Elk Creek Mine in Somerset taps methane that’s vented to protect miners from dangers such as an explosion. Its installation was the result of collaboration by project participants as politically diverse as coal producer Oxbow Mining LLC and green-energy advocate Aspen Skiing Co. And it raises the question of whether the product of an unlikely partnership has a high likelihood of being implemented in other mines.

Auden Schendler, vice president of Aspen Skiing Co., which invested $5.5 million in the project, thinks so.

“Economically, it’s going to be replicated and we’re going to replicate it,” he said.

Jeremy Nichols, of the group WildEarth Guardians, which long has called on coal mines to voluntarily participate in methane capture projects or be required by the federal government to do so, said he hopes other companies take notice of what Oxbow is doing.

“This isn’t just some crazy environmental group asking for methane capture. There’s a real business to be made here,” he said.

But Mike Ludlow, executive vice president of Oxbow Mining, said he thinks it’s important that his company’s methane capture project, along with an associated oxidization facility designed to burn off some additional methane to reduce its greenhouse gas impact, not be cited as reasons to require such approaches by other companies.

“Each mine I think has to be addressed separately. I think each mine has unique circumstances,” he said. “I think it would be a big mistake to mandate it on the whole industry.”

Still, he said, “We think that it’s a good use of the resource, and it’s in line with the current environmental thinking.”

He added, “It’s a very unlikely partnership but I believe all the partners are very proud to be part of it.”

Environmental footprint

The project’s partners also include Oxbow’s sister company, Gunnison Energy, which owns the oil and gas rights in the mine area, and Denver-based Vessels Coal Gas Inc., which oversaw its installation.

Vessels already is producing electricity and selling pipeline-ready natural gas through methane recovery at an inactive mine in Pennsylvania. Elk Creek has become the first active underground coal mine west of the Mississippi to generate electricity from methane.

The power is being purchased by Holy Cross Energy, a utility serving a region that includes Aspen.

One generation unit is up and running, and two more are scheduled to be online by year’s end.

Once operating at full capacity, the 3-megawatt facility will produce enough electricity to meet the needs of 2,000 homes, or all of Aspen Skiing’s operations, including four mountains, three hotels and 17 restaurants.

Being in an industry whose future existence could be threatened by climate change, Aspen Skiing has been trying for years to find ways to be environmentally responsible. Schendler said it has worked on solar and other projects, and evaluated wind energy. As it looked for a big, clean-energy opportunity, it determined it made sense to become the owner of a project basically offsetting all its electricity use, he said.

“We get a return on investment. It’s basically a business deal,” Schendler said.

Because methane is considered 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, Aspen Skiing would have to invest a half-billion dollars in solar to have the same kind of environmental benefit, Schendler said.

Hard feelings

Through the project, Aspen Skiing Co. has aligned itself with an industry that has criticized regulatory efforts targeting coal as a source of pollution and climate change. Ludlow said that with methane making up just 0.0017 percent of the atmosphere, he personally thinks a lot more research has to be done on what impact venting it may have on the climate.

Schendler said he thinks the coming-together of partners with such diverse views “is kind of a model for a new millennium,” and timely, coming off what he called a brutal, partisan election.

“It’s just remarkable and it’s hopefully sort of an omen for the future,” he said.

“We don’t agree on a lot of things, this group, but we do agree we shouldn’t waste resources.”

One indication of the disagreements project advocates have had over the years surfaced in connection with the Nov. 9 unveiling of the project. Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland and Paonia environmental activist Ed Marston had hoped to attend until they were told they weren’t welcome.

Oxbow Corp. spokesman Brad Goldstein said Ireland is “a vocal opponent of coal of any sort.” The Aspen Times also reported that Ireland had been critical of Oxbow owner Bill Koch’s alleged funding of opposition to a hydroelectric plant Aspen has been pursuing on Castle Creek, where the billionaire Koch owns property. Goldstein said Koch is one of numerous litigants trying to stop the project and protect the creek, and noted that some environmental interests are trying to do the same thing. A narrow majority of Aspen voters opposed the project in an advisory vote this month.

Marston has opposed Koch’s efforts to consolidate his acreage holdings in the Ragged Mountain area through a federal land exchange.

Goldstein said Marston “has shown himself to be unreliable and takes every opportunity to turn anything involving Bill Koch into something larger, and we didn’t feel that this (project unveiling) was the place for any of his shenanigans, so he wasn’t invited.”

Marston brushed off the brush-off.

“It’s Bill Koch’s property,” he said of the mine. “Although we’ve never met, we don’t get along, so I thought, ‘That’s cool.’”

Any personal animosities aside, Marston, a board member of the Delta-Montrose Electric Association utility co-op, said he’s been a longtime fan of the idea of using waste methane from North Fork Valley coal mines to produce electricity.

He said Vessels Coal Gas President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Vessels has told him there’s the potential for generating 40 megawatts of electricity in the North Fork Valley through methane capture, and DMEA distributes a total of 120 megawatts.

“So in theory we could supply a third of our power from the coal mine methane,” Marston said.

The Oxbow project partners believe that statewide, active and inactive mines might eventually support 75 to 150 megawatts of methane power generation, half of which could be developed in the next 10 years. Vessels said while he hopes to expand to other sites, “right now this project here is going to keep us busy for a while, we hope.”

The Oxbow project incorporates essentially internal combustion engine technology, he said. Vessels’ company made use of an engine made in Spain at the Oxbow site, while doing its own tweaking of controls to make sure the engine burns efficiently. Vessels said Europe is farther along than the United States in using waste methane from sources ranging from landfills and mines to livestock manure and sewage treatment.

The Oxbow plant burns methane that’s at about a 30 percent concentration.

Looking to lawmakers

Both Tom Vessels and the DMEA were involved earlier this year in lobbying unsuccessfully for legislation sponsored by state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, and state Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, to let utilities count coal mine methane recovery toward renewable energy portfolio requirements. Marston said he understands Schwartz will try another means of supporting methane recovery next year, and his utility will support her legislation as a way of helping make the process economic.

“It’s just incredibly important for us as a co-op and for western Colorado,” Marston said.

Some environmentalists opposed this year’s bill because they said the methane is still a fossil fuel rather than a renewable energy resource.

“It was the wrong way to do it,” said Nichols, who said something like providing tax incentives would be a better approach.

Nichols said the Oxbow project is interesting to see because coal mines and the Bureau of Land Management, which leases federal coal reserves, have long been saying methane recovery is uneconomical and technically unfeasible.

“Now it’s being done,” he said. “… Hopefully this will be a watershed moment for the BLM.”

He credited Oxbow for taking on the project, and Vessels for showing the kind of ambition Nichols thinks is needed to make such projects happen.

Just this month, the U.S. Forest Service rejected an appeal by WildEarth Guardians and other environmental groups who were challenging a decision by that agency to allow Arch Coal to expand its Somerset-area West Elk Mine into a roadless area, where it would install methane surface vents. The groups partly had contended the Forest Service failed to consider options such as methane capture and oxidization/flaring. They say the mine currently vents enough methane to heat a city the size of Grand Junction.

Clean-energy question

Oxbow Mining’s Ludlow said one thing that made the power project at Elk Creek Mine possible is the fact that the mine has a piped methane drainage system, in addition to a forced-air mine ventilation system that also removes methane and coal dust. The power plant is tapping the drainage system, a system that isn’t needed and doesn’t exist in all mines, he said.

He said not having ownership of the gas rights, the way Oxbow’s sister company does, might also make being legally able to capture the methane more difficult. But Nichols said that issue was resolved in 2008 when the Interior Board of Land Appeals, ruling in a Utah case also involving Vessels, determined that methane released during mining isn’t subject to mineral leasing laws.

In fact, that ruling let the BLM amend West Elk’s federal lease to let it capture methane even though the area hadn’t been leased. However, Arch Coal has maintained methane capture isn’t economical there, and the company hasn’t been required to do it.

The BLM also has hesitated to require methane flaring out of concerns about the potential danger of sparking an explosion at mines. Ludlow said the enclosed, chimney-like oxidization facility now flaring some of its gas was installed after Oxbow was satisfied that valves and controls made it safe.

That facility can oxidize up to 3.7 million cubic feet of methane per day. Until more power plant capacity is installed, the facility will generate what are called Verified Emission Reductions, which can be sold to parties wanting to offset carbon emissions. Xcel Energy has agreed to buy the first batch of those credits.

Nichols said while the kind of initiatives Oxbow is taking and WildEarth Guardians has been seeking are a good step forward, they shouldn’t be seen as some kind of clean-energy revolution. Generating power from methane that’s otherwise wasted is simply making the best of a bad situation that still involves the production of coal, a dirty fossil fuel, he said.

“This is not Colorado’s new, clean energy future,” he said. “Colorado’s clean energy future is truly clean energy.”

Schendler said he wouldn’t want the Aspen Skiing Co. to be in the position of enabling mine expansion through methane capture. But if mines are going to expand anyway, he said, methane capture makes sense, rather than having companies drilling all over western Colorado for natural gas even as mines are venting it.

“That’s absurd,” he said.


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