Money From Methane? Not In Colorado

Mining company unwilling to cash in on methane gas bounty

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Greed is usually the reason we see so many companies foul up our lands, air and water. But in Colorado, where a coal mining company is refusing to make money off the gas it is releasing, a little greed could actually help the environment.

For years, coal companies in Colorado’s North Fork Valley have been spewing millions of cubic feet of methane into the atmosphere every day from their underground coal mines. They have to get rid of the methane because otherwise it’s a safety hazard.

But methane pollution is a lose-lose-lose proposition. The planet loses due to the global warming impacts. That’s because methane (AKA natural gas) is more than 20 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

The American taxpayer loses, because the mines are mostly on public land. That means the coal companies could be paying the taxpayers for taking—and wasting—all of the gas we Americans own.

And consumers lose because the gas could be going to heat homes or fire up grills.

So for years, conservationists and community activists have been prodding everyone involved—the coal companies, the people who own the land (the Forest Service), and the people who manage the public’s gas (the Bureau of Land Management)—to figure out how to fix this pollution loser.

And the mantra by the involved parties has always been that the invisible hand of the market would make it all happen. If the coal companies were just given uncontested rights to the gas, the companies would be able to make money from it one way or the other, by selling the gas to consumers, or burning it themselves to make power, or burning it off and selling "carbon credits" for saving the atmosphere. Everyone would win.

Well, after spending years trying to figure out how to resolve some of the supposed roadblocks to gas ownership, BLM in early 2009 cut the Gordian knot. They gave the Mountain Coal Company the right to make money off the methane they were venting at the West Elk Mine.

So, Mountain Coal is falling all over itself to do the environmentally protective—and the money-making thing—right?

Well, no. Turns out Mountain Coal’s consultants claim they can’t figure out how to make enough money off methane. In a 224-page report submitted to the BLM in September, Mountain Coal comes up with just about every excuse in the book for not doing well by doing good. Flare the methane for carbon credits? Not economical. Burn it to make power? Pollution controls make it too expensive. Send it to a pipeline to sell? Too hard.

And how do they reach these conclusions? With some pretty questionable assumptions about overhead, profits, financing, and non-existent pollution requirements.

So, after all the complaints that the coal companies would fix this problem if only we’d let them, Mountain Coal says "no thanks" to making money off methane. At the same time, it’s complaining that it’s not making enough profit from methane, Mountain Coal is sinking up to $30 million for a new coal processing plant at the same mine to get some sand out of its coal.

Seems like trusting coal companies to fix this problem—even for money—is the real lose-lose-lose proposition.

Ted was an attorney in the Rocky Mountain regional office from 2003–2018. He protected wilderness, roadless areas and the planet's climate on behalf of conservation groups in the Four Corners' states.

Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office protects the region’s iconic public lands, wildlife species, and precious water resources; defends Tribes and disparately impacted communities fighting to live in a healthy environment; and works to accelerate the region’s transition to 100% clean energy.