Coal Mine Waste Gas Takes A Green Turn

Methane in coal mines can be dangerous. An awful reminder of this came in 2010 with the Upper Big Branch explosion that killed 29 men in West Virginia.

But according to the EPA, the necessary venting of coal mine methane yields “a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change” – and it’s on that count that a fascinating Colorado project is in the news.

The Aspen Skiing Company says it is investing $5.5 million in a $6 million collaboration with Holy Cross Energy and Vessells Coal Gas to capture methane gas from a Somerset, Colo., coal mine, and then burn the methane to produce electricity.

The project got a write-up in the Aspen Daily News a few weeks ago, then got national play when Auden Schendler, VP of sustainability for SkiCo, as it’s known locally, wrote a piece for the Climate Progress blog.

Schendler’s point in the piece was to encourage conservationists to be open to unlikely and even unsavory alliances to advance their cause — as SkiCo has been in working with a mining company that is, more or less, a climate-change denier.

“Our partner is a coal mine that carries membership in the Colorado Mining Association, which is a state climate denial machine that on its website cites a Fox report called ‘Global Warming: The Great Delusion,’ Schendler wrote. “Uncomfortable? Hells yes. But desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s a whole new world.”

But that might not be the most interesting aspect of the Colorado mine project, which Schendler says will have a power-generating capacity of 3 megawatts. What’s really striking is what Schendler told New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin in a piece Revkin did that explored the mine project in more detail.

“To get this kind of carbon benefit with photovoltaics,” Schendler said in a long email shared by Revkin, “you’d have to invest half a billion dollars, instead of $6 million. And interestingly: we could buy cheap RECs [renewable energy credits] and declare ourselves carbon neutral for about $40,000 annually. EPA would bless us. But we wouldn’t have done anything. So we decided to do a project where we couldn’t take credit for the carbon, or get the power (we sell both to the utility) but which would actually do something material.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.