A Mine That Lets the Methane Out

The Fight to Keep Greenhouse Gases in the Earth

The West Elk Mine is Colorado releases usable methane into the atmosphere, and is set to expand its operations.
© Union Pacific Railroad

Nationally, coal mines are responsible for 10% of all human-caused methane emissions, yet no standards exist to control these emissions. On Colorado's western slope near the small town of Paonia, two of the world's worst sources of global warming emissions are locked deep below roadless forest lands next to the West Elk Wilderness. To prevent methane explosions, Mountain Coal Company is venting the methane from its West Elk Mine directly into the atmosphere. Earthjustice, representing WildEarth Guardians, is challenging the decision by the Forest Service and Department of the Interior to approve the expansion of the mine.

Thick seams of coal, which when burned is the largest single source of global warming emissions, contain billions of cubic feet of methane, an odorless gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. Left in place, the coal and methane will never contribute to the planetary crisis—but leaving them alone is not what Mountain Coal Company has in mind.

A subsidiary of the multinational coal company Arch Coal, the company is expanding its underground coal mining operation into the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests. To prevent methane explosions like the one at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, Mountain Coal is venting the methane directly into the atmosphere, even though practical, greener options exist. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the amount of methane wasted would be enough to heat almost 40,000 homes—a city the size of Boulder, Colorado—for up to 12 years.

"Burning coal is already a significant source of greenhouse gases, and here you have a coal company that will compound the problem by venting the methane along with it," says Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski.

Earthjustice, representing WildEarth Guardians, is challenging the decision by the Forest Service and Department of the Interior to approve the mine expansion, arguing that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the agencies to look at options to reduce the damage from methane venting, yet failed to do so. According to the EPA, Mountain Coal's West Elk Mine is one of only 12 in the country that does not capture methane vented from drill holes for use.

"NEPA is a "look before you leap" law that requires the government to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of a project, including its global warming impacts," says Zukoski. "But the government just blew off its obligations, which is wrong."

One way to lessen the methane's impact is to capture the gas and burn it for fuel. Since it's federally owned, the government could collect royalties on the natural gas sale, valued at more than $250 million over the life of the mine expansion.

Another option the federal agencies failed to consider is flaring the methane, a practice used in Europe and Australia that doesn't use the gas for fuel but does decrease its carbon load by about 90%.But Mountain Coal refuses to consider either option, claiming in a report to the Bureau of Land Management that neither would be "economically feasible." However, independent experts believe that Mountain Coal's economic analysis was biased and exaggerated costs.

"We had an economist look at the report and he found that Mountain Coal appeared to have cooked the numbers," Zukoski says.

As BLM assesses the report's validity, Colorado's environment continues to suffer. Ski resort owners are worried that warmer winters and less snow pack chip away at their business, while hotter temperatures have worsened an unprecedented mountain pine beetle infestation that's killed millions of acres of trees. Even butterflies and pika are feeling the squeeze from hotter temperatures, which have eroded the vulnerable species" habitat.

While Colorado struggles to cut carbon emissions to prevent or at least slow down these and other climate change impacts, capturing methane at underground coal mines remains a low-hanging fruit. "The Forest Service estimated that the climate change impacts of the methane released during Mountain Coal's expansion is equal to more than 1% of all the emissions from every car and truck, and from every coal and natural gas power plant in Colorado," says Zukoski. "This state has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions here 20% by 2020. Getting one of the state's worst greenhouse polluters to use off-the-shelf technology on a single project would be just about the easiest, most cost effective step toward achieving that goal."

CONTACT: Earthjustice.

JESSICA A. KNOBLAUCH is a freelance environmental journalist living in the San Francisco Bay area, and a communications assistant for Earthjustice.