One morning in late September, a group of people gathered at a trail head in Coal Basin, near the town of Redstone, for a hike into the Elk Mountains. The weather was moody; wispy clouds clung to the tops of the snow-covered peaks, while the aspen groves lining the mountains’ lower flanks had erupted in gold. The group —various stakeholders from the environmental, business, political, mining and energy worlds — had assembled at the invitation of Christopher Caskey, a Paonia-based scientist and entrepreneur, to witness a troubling phenomenon: invisible clouds of methane leaking out of five old coal mines that once operated in Coal Basin.
Methane — an odorless, colorless gas which occurs naturally in coal deposits — is a potent greenhouse gas, 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100 year time period (over a 20 year timescale, methane is 84 times more powerful). Caskey, who owns a ceramics company that makes bricks and tiles from mud in the Paonia Reservoir, became aware of the issue several years ago around the coal mines near his home in the North Fork Valley. Browsing the EPA database of old coal mines, he saw that Coal Basin had a similar problem and began making regular hikes into the area to assess the situation. According to the EPA, the mines were emitting over 477 million cubic feet of methane per year, equivalent to 248,040 tons of carbon dioxide— roughly half of all of the combined 552,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions generated in 2014, according to a 2017 study, elsewhere in Pitkin County, where the basin is located.
Caskey is part of a local coalition trying to get land managers from the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to deal with the methane leaks by authorizing a project to capture the methane and either use it somehow or destroy it. To do that, they’ll have to surmount a host of bureaucratic challenges, but as the climate crisis worsens, the calls to take action are growing more urgent.
“Think about all the coal mines in the state,” said Mona Newton, the executive director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), a local nonprofit that spearheaded the methane coalition. “Why not start in our own backyard?”
A hidden problem
If you sliced Huntsman Ridge, which lies just west of Coal Basin, lengthwise, you’d see coal seams laced through the formation and below them, methane gas-bearing shale — the product of a volcanic eruption millions of years ago.
In 1957, the Mid-Continent Coal and Coke Company began extracting the coal, transporting it on trucks down a winding road carved into the steep hillsides of Coal Basin. Mining activity releases the methane trapped in coal deposits, which can build-up underground and lead to explosions, like the 1981 blast in one of the Coal Basin mines that killed 15 miners.
The mines shut down in 1992 and went through a reclamation process to seal off the various portals and bore holes, but methane from old coal mines continues to leak into the atmosphere long after they’ve closed. The emissions drop steeply at first and then level off, without ever reaching zero. “It’s like trying to seal a kids’ treehouse with a roll of duct tape,” Caskey said of the way coal mine openings are plugged. “You can partially do it, but you’re never going to make it airtight.”
The mines are among the thousands of shuttered coal mines across the U.S. currently leaking methane long after they’ve closed. According to EPA data, Between 2006 and 2015, methane emissions from abandoned coal mines increased from 5.4 billion cubic feet to about 13 billion cubic feet — a number that will keep growing as more mines shut down.
Despite this, none of Pitkin County’s ambitious emissions reduction plans accounted for the methane leaking out of the Coal Basin mines.
“They weren’t even on our radar,” said Greg Poschman, one of the Pitkin County commissioners on the hike.
On Oct. 13, Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners will discuss a proposed resolution asking the BLM, the Forest Service, and the Department of the Interior to examine different options for a methane project in Coal Basin and to develop a regulatory process to deal with coal mine methane emissions on a broader scale.
Nationwide, just two coal mines have been turned into working methane-fired power plants — one of which sits roughly 30 miles southwest of Coal Basin, at the Elk Creek coal mine in the town of Somerset. In 2012, the mine partnered with Aspen Skiing Co., Holy Cross Energy, and Vessels Carbon Solutions to convert the waste methane from the mine into electricity. The plant now generates about 24 million kilowatt hours a year — about as much electricity for the grid as Aspen Skiing Co. uses to run its four ski resorts and hotels — while employing former coal miners. The project has also prevented 250 billion cubic feet of methane a year from entering the atmosphere, according to its 2021 progress report from the company. That’s the equivalent of taking half a million cars off the road a year.
Caskey envisions a similar project for the Coal Basin — part of what he hopes will be a steady ramp-up of methane utilization projects at coal mines across the U.S. A lot of times people are like “we should do a study,” he told me before the hike. “And I’m like, ‘No studies! Only action!’”
A tough road ahead
After four miles, Caskey stops on the road below an old mine portal for Dutch Creek Number One and assembles a methane sensor device, which begins buzzing softly. He walks up the hillside above us a short way to a concrete block marking the portal, the sensor growing louder and louder. It’s a calm day, but Caskey points to some shrubs that are being buffeted by what appears to be a strong breeze. The mine is exhaling methane at a few cubic feet per second.
Caskey’s sensor reads 1.8 percent — over 100,000 times the normal atmospheric concentration of methane.
Figuring out a way through the bureaucratic and economic hurdles blocking solutions to the situation will not be an easy road.
The electricity market has become much more competitive in recent years — especially with growth in renewables like solar and wind — making the relatively higher price of methane-powered electricity a harder sell. The Elk Creek Mine methane plant, for instance, would not be financially viable without selling carbon-credits to California’s offset market, which allows companies to offset emissions beyond their limit by purchasing carbon credits from conservation initiatives or projects that capture emissions.
“There are many, many mines in the country where we should be doing this,” said Julian Huzyk, the chief operating officer for the Elk Creek Mine plant who joined the hike. “But how do you make it economical?”
There are bureaucratic issues, too. The BLM, which administers the minerals in Coal Basin, does not currently have the authority to regulate methane as a pollutant — only as a resource — said Steven Hall, the Colorado communications director for the BLM.
“If we view coal mine methane from a non-producing mine as a waste product, what happens if people start to pump that waste from a mine? At that point, is it a waste product or a commodity?”
Hall added that new legislation could help pave the way for a new regulatory framework around methane capture from the CORE act, which is awaiting hearing in the U.S. Senate after passing the U.S. House of Representatives last February. The bill includes provisions to allow methane capture in Garfield and Pitkin counties and also creates a pilot program to lease and generate energy from excess methane in shuttered coal mines.
Before heading back, Caskey brings the group to another site, higher up in the basin, where methane is escaping from an old vent in the mine. Eric Edwards, a former coal miner and oil and gas worker with a “don’t tread on me” license plate who now works mostly in methane capture, grumbles about the “19 layers of unnecessary government to fix a climate problem.”
At the very least, it seemed, the methane problem had brought together some unlikely allies: workers in the fossil fuel industry and climate advocates.
“This is a former mining operation,” said Steve Child, a Pitkin County commissioner, who used to serve on the board of what’s now Wilderness Workshop. “It would have very little environmental impact, but bring an important climate benefit.”
Sarah Tory is a freelance journalist and correspondent for High Country News. This story ran in the The Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post-Independent.