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Coal, Hard Facts

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper took a feel-good tour of a Colorado coal mine this week, bolstering his corporate-friendly cred in the southern part of the state.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper took a feel-good tour of a Colorado coal mine this week, bolstering his corporate-friendly cred in the southern part of the state.

He talked about how great it was that the mine could co-exist with wildlife, and joked about the high-paying jobs. And for all of you self-serving Prius owners who call coal by its other name—One Of The Dirtiest Fuels On The Planet ™—Hickenlooper wanted to remind you:

"We all use electricity, we all drive vehicles so we have to play our role in getting the energy, whether it's coal or natural gas. We all have to figure out how to get it safely and efficiently and in a way that it benefits the community around it. That's what they are trying to do here."

Music to the ears of those running the New Elk Mine, the subject of the tour, which is digging out metallurgic coal in an area that has seen mining for decades. And you have to appreciate job creation in tough economic times. But Hickenlooper omitted some interesting facts about the New Elk Mine. For example:

  • Profits from this mine will likely be shipped to the mine's Canadian parent company (I know, if we had to pick a foreign country for which Colorado should be a resource colony, we might pick Canada. Then again, we might not—see, e.g., the tar sands and Keystone XL pipeline debates).
  • The coal will be shipped overseas to help feed the demand of Asian steel producers, some of whom may compete with steel producers here in the U.S.
  • Shipping coal overseas likely means the coal will be burned in countries with more lax public health standards, and in countries who are doing even less to limit the release of greenhouse gases
  • And talk about wildlife coexisting with the mine ignores fact that the mine hasn’t finalized its ventilation system, which will likely have the most damaging impacts on wildlife. Venting methane may require the bulldozing of scores of well pads—as many as 10-20 a square mile—which will dissect habitat.

These concerns may all be petty nitpicking.  So let's focus on one other point of Hickenlooper’s speech: that New Elk will try to mine the coal "efficiently."

That’s highly debatable, as I'll show. But if he wants that goal of efficiency to be met, he can get the State of Colorado to step up and do something.

Here’s the efficiency problem. The Bureau of Land Management recently predicted that the mine could spew up to 8.5 million cubic feet a day of methane, AKA natural gas, to ensure safe mining conditions. The actual figure may be lower, but significant methane pollution is a possibility.

Methane must be removed to permit safe mining conditions.  But wasting billions of cubic feet a year is massively inefficient by any measure.

It wastes natural gas which could be heating homes. 

And since the natural gas isn't captured for sale, the state is losing tax revenue and royalties.

It’s a lost opportunity to create jobs, since methane capture technologies require people to build and maintain them.

And it’s unnecessary pollution—methane can lead to smog, and it's one of the worst greenhouse gases around, more than 20 times more worse than carbon dioxide. That said, it's preventable. Off-the-shelf technologies exist to capture and use methane or to send natural gas to markets. Getting coal mines to internalize these pollution costs will make them more economically efficient.

The state of Colorado knows all this. For years officials at the Department of Natural Resources have bemoaned the waste of methane from Colorado coal mines. But the state has generally waited for other entities—the federal government, the coal companies themselves—to take the lead. The result: nobody has done anything to address this problem.

Want Colorado coal mining to REALLY be efficient, Governor Hickenlooper? Take charge of finding a solution to coal mine methane pollution. It will require more effort than a photo-op. But it will be something real you can do to help create jobs, raise revenues and protect the planet.

Tags:  Coal, Climate Change