County officials take on coal mine methane

West Elk Mine. Photo/WildEarth Guardians

What will it take to stop methane emissions from Colorado mines?

GUNNISON, Colo. – This is where the rubber meets the road on climate change action. Gunnison County commissioners are taking a hard look at a proposed coal-mine expansion but particularly the methane emissions from the mine.

The West Elk Mine is located in a corner of Gunnison County 37 miles from Crested Butte, but across Kebler Pass.

It’s the only mine still operating at Somerset, located in the North Fork Valley. The mine operator, Arch Coal, has been on shaky ground. It dipped into bankruptcy last year but emerged in October. The Crested Butte News describes St. Louis-based Arch as “holding on by its fingernails to stay in business for a few more years.”

In Gunnison County, Arch still has 220 employees making about $100,000 a year. The company wants to expand existing leases of coal under the national forest by 1,720 acres. There’s no guarantee they’ll find coal there, but they want to make sure they’re not overlooking it.

Two of the three commissioners agree that the most pressing issue from their perspective is the need to capture methane coming from the mine. Methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, is a greenhouse gas that has 72 times as much heat-trapping capacity over a 20-year period than the far more common carbon dioxide.

The West Elk alone is responsible for 0.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado, according to the calculations of Ted Zukoski, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represents various groups that oppose the mine expansion. The North Fork mines are said to be among the gassiest in the world.

Arch Coal wants to pay a 5 percent royalty, instead of the normal 7 percent, for any coal that comes out of the new area, called the E-seam. The justification is the higher costs of extraction due to the different, more difficult geology. The royalties help support local schools and re-training for laid-off workers.

Would Arch work with the county on better methane capture? According to the Crested Butte News account, a company representative said capturing methane from an operating mine is a “different animal” than capturing it from a mine that has closed. But one of the commissioners countered that the technology exists and should be used.

After a recent  meeting, the Crested Butte News reported that two commissioners, Jonathan Houck and John Messner, were  firm that Gunnison County has a role in doing what it can to reduce greenhouse gases.

“In this last election, John and I heard constant discussion about coal and climate change. These are issues that resonate with our community,” Houck said.

But Phil Chamberland says he disagrees that a majority of the community is concerned about climate change.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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