Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide. Instead of generating electricity with it or capturing the gas for sale, the company proposes to continue dumping between 2 and 7 million cubic feet of methane into the air daily which is enough to heat as many as 34,000 homes.
Yet independent experts, and one at the Bureau of Land Management, have raised concerns that Mountain Coal's economic analysis exaggerates costs, narrowly assesses economic feasibility, and appears biased.
"Using, rather than venting, the methane at West Elk could be a win-win-win situation: less climate change pollution, more valuable methane put to good use, and more royalty money for taxpayers," said Ted Zukoski, an attorney at Earthjustice, which represents WildEarth Guardians in the lawsuit. "And we still might be able to get there. But only if BLM or the court forces an unbiased look at solutions."
"Despite being handed the opportunity to capture and use methane gas on a silver platter, Mountain Coal continues to make excuses to keep wasting this valuable product and endanger the climate," said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. "We had hoped the market would compel Mountain Coal to do the right thing; instead, the company seems to be gaming the market."
Dr. Tom Power is a research professor at the University of Montana Economics Department, Principal for Power Consulting, and independent expert retained by Earthjustice. In comments submitted to the Bureau of Land Management on October 22 and November 15, he noted, among other things, that Mountain Coal appears to have exaggerated the costs of operating and maintaining electrical generators that could be fueled by methane vented from the West Elk mine and assumed that no generated electricity would be used on-site for mine operations.
"Mountain Coal Company's assumptions appear to be systematically biased in one direction, namely against finding any action that is economically feasible other than continued venting of this powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere," said Dr. Power. "That undermines the plausibility of the economic analysis submitted by Mountain Coal Company."
Hank Szymanksi, a Petroleum Engineer with the Colorado State Office of the federal Bureau of Land Management, also questioned a number of Mountain Coal's assumptions and commented that an "expanded" analysis was needed to justify a finding that capture and use was not economically feasible.
"Rather than objectively analyze economic feasibility, Mountain Coal instead concocted an assessment to support continued polluting the atmosphere and wasting methane," said WildEarth Guardians' Nichols. "Mountain Coal clearly has no interest in making the market work, underscoring the need for mandatory limits on methane pollution at the West Elk coal mine."
In 2008, Mountain Coal was authorized by the Forest Service and Department of Interior to vent methane as part of an expansion of the West Elk mine. Earthjustice brought a lawsuit challenging the agencies' failure to take a hard look at alternatives to methane venting, including capture and use or, as a last resort, flaring. In response, the Department of Interior amended Mountain Coal's leases in January of 2009 to allow the company to capture methane if it was deemed "economically feasible."
Mountain Coal's latest report is a response to these lease amendments. The Bureau of Land Management has indicated it will make a decision to approve or disapprove of Mountain Coal's assertions within the coming months. In the meantime, WildEarth Guardians' lawsuit against Mountain Coal is proceeding.