Coal mines, methane and our common future in Colorado

Western Colorado would not be what we know today without a century and a half of mining. Mining made us a state.

Riding the booms and busts of a mineral economy has been a challenge here, as for other mining regions. We were the envy of the world during the silver boom of the 1880s. This turned to ghost towns with the Silver Panic of 1893. We built our transportation network and other infrastructure with mining wealth. We went from pristine Alpine landscapes to maybe 25,000 abandoned mines, many of them sources of pollutant laden water. We have seen the good and the bad in technicolor.

We have learned. Colorado was a leader in enacting modern mine reclamation legislation. The old practice of dumping mine waste in the nearest creek, or letting the smelter smoke darken the sky is long gone.

Our current mining industry exists because, through dramatically improved performance, it has achieved greater social acceptance.

The current coal mines in the North Fork of the Gunnison were developed around 30 years ago. As a member of the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board, I supported permits for all three mines. They brought times of great prosperity to the valley. A generation of mining families made a home there.

When these permits were issued, there was no thought of today’s issue, the considerable methane emissions these mines produce. To the extent methane was discussed, it was an occupational safety issue: methane needed to be vented from the mines to prevent explosions and protect worker safety. Now it is seems that the North Fork mines may be the West Slope’s leading methane emitter.

We now understand that this methane is a potent greenhouse gas. We need badly to control these emissions, and do so now.

But we cannot forget our Western values of working together in times of trouble. The North Fork miners deserve our support. Their jobs are technically challenging. They are widely admired for efficiency, worker safety, and technical competence. As a state official, I voted to present them awards for outstanding reclamation practices. I have taken university classes to see the West Elk Mine. We have had a warm welcome, and an eagerness to share knowledge. It is one of the world’s great classrooms.

All mineral deposits are finite. All mines will eventually close. All miners know this. The coal industry in the North Fork is ramping down. Now that the industry is on hard times, all kinds of decisions that affect miners and others dependent on coal have been taken without involving them, even where their futures are at stake.  We are their neighbors. We should support them in these difficult times.

But the truth is that coal mining has been built on public subsidies. A 2015 International Monetary Fund study concluded that energy subsidies worldwide were enormous – 6.5 percent of the entire world economic output, some $5 trillion per year. That subsidy overwhelmingly goes to fossil fuels.

Coal is the most highly subsidized of all. Worldwide, coal subsidies are about 4 percent of the entire economic output of the human race.

The one remaining North Fork coal operation is requesting three things from government: First, a reduced royalty on the federal coal they are mining. Second, to build roads into a lovely roadless area, to drill methane vents to permit mining more coal. Finally, a revised permit that, like past permits, will not require control of the mine’s methane emissions.

Federal coal royalties are already below market rates. The last thing we should approve is more subsidies.

As to the roads, we recently had a unit of British Sea Stallion helicopters training in Gunnison before deployment to Afghanistan. They could lift enormous loads. Drill rigs, even heavy drill rigs, have been helicoptered many times. Before roading more roadless areas, there needs to be impartial evaluation of whether we can avoid road building in these beautiful areas.

In the spirit of our region, we should come together to solve the methane problem. The blame game will get nothing done. County commissioners, coal companies, local electric utilities, public interest organizations, state agencies and others all must do their share to find a way to capture and make use of the West Elk methane.

There are multiple options for methane control and use. One small existing project captures North Fork methane, generates electricity, and sells it to Aspen. Methane can become vehicle fuel or industrial feedstock.

As to the future, this state must develop regulations for coal methane emissions. Colorado is a leader in managing oil and gas industry emissions. We must also lead for coal.

Luke Danielson is president of Sustainable Development Strategies Group, a nonprofit institution dedicated to improving management of mineral resources, headquartered in Gunnison.


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