Plenty of coal yet to be mined from the Uinta region
Old coal mines dot the route along Energy Alley from Green River, Utah, to Rifle, from small holes punched into the Bookcliffs overlooking the Grand Valley to the closed Roadside Mine in De Beque Canyon.
North of Grand Junction, miners are digging into the Bookcliffs at the McClane Canyon Mine, hauling 280,000 tons a year out to Cameo Station to fire turbines that generate electricity.
Central Appalachian Mining, which also owns McClane Canyon Mine, is planning to dig a larger mine nearby, the Red Cliffs Mine, where output would dwarf that of McClane Canyon Mine.
To the south, mines in Delta and Gunnison counties produced nearly half of the 32 million tons of coal produced annually in Colorado.
All the coal being pulled from Mesa, Delta, Garfield and Gunnison counties, however, represents a mere scratch on the surface of what is known as the Uinta coal region. One estimate says the region has 23 billion tons of prehistoric organic material squeezed under millions of tons of soil and rock, deep below the arid, desolate landscape.
Of the 23 billion tons of coal, it appears less than half, about 11 billion tons, eventually can be mined, Colorado State Geologist Vince Matthews said.
Dismissed by critics as a dirty fuel that no longer fits into the nation’s energy needs, coal nevertheless remains a staple of the nation’s energy appetite, Matthews said. Although it’s the focus of debate around the world, coal generates more than half the nation’s electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration.
“It’s not a 19th century fuel,” Matthews said. “It’s a 20th and 21st century fuel.”
Colorado exports much of the coal it produces, sending 22 million tons out of state, according to the Colorado Mining Association.
The demand for Colorado coal has largely been driven by the need for what is known as “compliance coal.” Its low-sulfur content has made it attractive as a feedstock for eastern power plants operating under tight air-pollution rules, Matthews said. Cleaner-burning western coal is mixed with eastern coal to comply with clean-air regulations.
Colorado overall is the nation’s seventh-largest coal producer, and it has the largest reserves of bituminous “compliance coal” in the country.
The Red Cliff Mine, which would be dug into the Bookcliffs north of Loma off Colorado Highway 139, could increase Colorado’s coal production by 6 million to 8 million tons a year, or as much as 25 percent, for 30 years.
Rhino Energy, owned by Central Appalachian Mining, is working on an environmental impact statement for about 6,000 acres where it hopes to win a lease to mine. Rhino also hopes eventually to mine underneath 23,000 acres adjacent to the 6,000 acres.
Production, though, remains a long way off.
“If we can get to the (first) lease sale by 2011, I’ll feel pretty good about that,” said Corey Heaps, project manager for Red Cliff Mine.
At full operation, Rhino Energy says, Red Cliff Mine would operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and employ as many as 200 people.
It’s also being watched by the Colorado Environmental Coalition, which doesn’t want the mine to intrude on a proposed wilderness area in nearby Hunter Canyon or other views of the area.