Methane and coal

This week’s “Energy Alley” series by Daily Sentinel reporters Gary Harmon and Dennis Webb is providing an enlightening look at the vast and varied energy resources available in this region. Those resources have fueled both economic booms and busts in western Colorado in the past, and will likely do so again in the future. We’ll have more to say about that in a few days.

But two articles published in Tuesday’s edition of the Sentinel point to a clear opportunity for development of another energy resource in this region — and a serious problem for that resource.

The opportunity comes in the form of methane gas, trapped in coal formations that are already being mined in Colorado or could be in the near future. If the methane can be captured at an economically feasible cost — which has yet to be demonstrated — it could provide another important source of energy for this region, reduce the emissions of a major greenhouse gas and potentially boost the profitability of area coal mines.

As the articles by Dennis Webb illustrated, many different people and groups are involved in trying to determine if that can happen. They include coal industry officials, academics, government agencies and environmental organizations.

It is noteworthy that on the same day the Sentinel published the methane articles, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed column by two men closely tied to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggesting the quickest and cheapest way to reverse global warming: cut emissions of methane gas. Among the technologies they cited was “drilling into coal seams before mining to release and collect methane.”

It appears there should be even greater impetus in seeking ways to economically capture methane from coal mines in this region.

However, there is a serious potential roadblock to future development of some coal resources — and the associated methane — in western Colorado’s North Fork Valley. That obstacle is the federal roadless rule for national forest lands — in this case, lands primarily in the Gunnison National Forest.

The original rule, enacted in the waning days of the Clinton administration, is being pushed heavily now by some environmental groups even though conflicting court decisions make its legal viability uncertain. It would prohibit the roads and related facilities necessary to expand several North Fork coal mines.

The alternative Colorado Rule for national forest roadless areas in this state would carve out an exemption for North Fork coal expansion. As one coal executive put it, the Colorado Rule would help “preserve about 1,000 jobs in the North Fork Valley.”

That’s just one reason The Daily Sentinel has long supported the Colorado Rule over the federal one. The fact that it was developed by a broad array of forest users and conservationists here in Colorado, following a series of heavily attended public meetings, is an even more important reason.

We’re pleased to see that at least one conservation group in the region, the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council based in the North Fork Valley, also supports the coal mine exemption because it recognizes the importance of those coal-related jobs.

We hope officials with the Obama administration will soon approve the Colorado Rule to manage roadless areas in this state and to help develop another clean-energy resource.


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