U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet's office has revised and expanded the scope of coal mine methane language contained in a wilderness and land conservation bill, a move that may persuade Garfield County commissioners to drop their opposition to the bill due to its impacts on the county.

A staff member for the Colorado Democratic senator, John Whitney, met with Garfield commissioners Tuesday to review the revisions to the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, also sponsored by U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder.

The measure would provide wilderness designation or other protections to some 400,000 acres of public land in four parts of Colorado. The Garfield County commissioners' concern pertains to the proposal to withdraw some 200,000 acres in the Thompson Divide area southwest of Glenwood Springs from future oil and gas leasing and other mineral development, while honoring existing mineral rights.

Some of that acreage is in Garfield County, and the commissioners have objected to the idea of forever barring oil and gas drilling on those lands.

However, Commissioner Tom Jankovsky has indicated a willingness to change his position if the bill contains language providing for possible capture of methane from former coal mines in Pitkin and Garfield counties. The bill initially contained language requested by Gunnison and Delta counties and natural gas producers, asking that it create a program to lease and generate energy from excess methane in existing or abandoned coal mines in the North Fork Valley.

Doing so would address climate change because methane is a greenhouse gas, and also would support the local economy there.

As now proposed, the measure would call for the Bureau of Land Management to set up a pilot coal methane capture program in Gunnison, Delta, Pitkin and Garfield counties. That could take in areas such as Coal Basin west of Redstone in Pitkin County, and along the Grand Hogback formation near New Castle, both areas of extensive coal mining in the past.

"We really appreciate the idea you guys have had to bring it over to this valley," Whitney told Garfield commissioners Tuesday.

The revised bill would require the BLM to inventory areas with potential for methane capture, measuring things such as methane volume and concentration in active, inactive and abandoned mines. The BLM would then have to pursue leasing to allow methane to be captured for uses such as electricity generation, heat production or transport to market.

The gas alternatively could be burned by flaring to vastly reduce its greenhouse-gas impacts, which creates credits that can be sold in a carbon market in California.

Where efforts to lease methane fail, the BLM would be required to flare it, or cap vent holes to try to stop it from escaping to the atmosphere.

The measure would help resolve some of the legal questions regarding mineral rights and what the BLM can allow when it comes to methane capture and coal leases.

"I think this is a good compromise," Jankovsky said of the amended Thompson Divide language.

He said commissioners continue to believe in multiple use of federal lands, including oil and gas development. But he said there probably won't ever be drilling in the Thompson Divide anyway, and most of the residents in his district in eastern Garfield County support permanent mineral withdrawal there.

Garfield Commissioner John Martin said he thinks the bill's language is headed in the right direction. But he said it's important that people understand what's being proposed for the Thompson Divide.

"It's going to be a hard pill to swallow, to say permanent withdrawal" of mineral rights, he said.

Garfield County didn't decide Tuesday whether to revise its position on the CORE bill due to the language changes. The language is to be presented soon at a meeting of Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, of which the county is a member.

Dan Richardson, the mayor of Carbondale, which supports the CORE bill, said at Tuesday's meeting that the views of governments from other regions should be considered, but the positions of governments in the Thompson Divide area that have long been involved in the discussions leading up to the bill need to be accorded heavy weight.

"A lot of work has gone into it to make it work for a broad cross section of stakeholders," Richardson said.

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