This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
An entrepreneur and environmental scientist has moved a step closer toward being able to capture some of the estimated 1.3 million cubic feet of methane gas leaking from coal mines in Pitkin County each year, a key advance toward one day reducing carbon emissions from mines and turning a harmful greenhouse gas into a fuel.
Chris Caskey received a “categorical exclusion” from the White River National Forest on June 22 that will allow him to begin inventorying and studying methane gas leaking from coal mine vents across 5 square miles in Coal Basin near Redstone.
The decision authorizes Caskey’s Delta Brick & Climate Company to use ground-based monitoring units and aircraft to gather data in the White River National Forest that will relay the volume, concentration and location of methane gas venting into the atmosphere from mining adits and other surface features.
Jennifer Schuller, deputy district ranger for the national forest, called the decision “precedent setting,” although it is just the first step in a joint project between Caskey’s brick and climate company, in Montrose, and the Aspen-based Community Office for Resource Efficiency, a nonprofit dedicated to shepherding the Roaring Fork Valley to a carbon-free, net-zero energy future.
In 2019, Caskey began harvesting sediment from the silt-choked Paonia Reservoir, which feeds farms in the North Fork Valley, and repurposing it into bricks and the kind of colorful, glazed interior home tiles you’d find in a high-end design magazine. Through this process, he’s already freeing up water flow in Paonia Reservoir and transforming its sticky bottom into something useful. And he hopes to someday use captured methane to fire the kilns for his bricks.
But his bigger focus now is on the mines in Pitkin County, where methane, a greenhouse gas released from coal and surrounding rock strata during mining activities.
If Caskey can map the leaks, he says he can destroy some of the methane venting from the mines that have been closed for 30 years. All this time later, that gas is still contributing to an estimated 14 deaths a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“But that’s just the EPA’s best guess,” Caskey says. “We don’t know how much gas is actually there. It could be more or less. My project this summer will give us a better idea of where and how much methane is leaking. But the current amount literally kills people both from adverse heat impacts and then from smog and respiratory irritants, which can cause premature deaths from asthma.”
Caskey wants people to think of the situation as having “actual urgency. Like, what if more than one kid per month was falling into an open mine shaft and dying?” he says. “We’d probably want to do something about that. But because we don’t know specifically which deaths the leaks are causing, and because they’re happening more in pollution-burdened communities, we just don’t think about it.”
Regardless of the death count, he says the problem needs to be dealt with. Methane has at least 28 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide, and experts agree capturing mine methane would make significant greenhouse gas reductions.
Options for destroying it include burning it and using it to generate electricity. A few methane capture operations already exist in Colorado, including the Larimer County Landfill Gas Project and the Southern Ute Methane Capture project in La Plata County. But none exist on public land — that’s part of what makes the Coal Basin project so intriguing.
In addition to running his brick company, Caskey is managing director of MethaneRX, formed in 2003 to work with mine operators, electric utilities and coal communities on “economically viable projects that destroy methane or utilize it for a clean and productive purpose,” the company says.
Current MethaneRX projects include Elk Creek Mine near Somerset in Gunnison County, which uses captured gas to power the operations of all four of Aspen Skiing Company’s resorts, Cambria Mine 33, in Pennsylvania, which uses oxidation to capture methane, and the Coal Basin project.
Dallas Blaney, CEO of the Aspen-based Community Office for Resource Efficiency, says going to Coal Basin is a surreal experience. You hike up a 40-foot-wide road cut through the otherwise pristine White River National Forest. Birds sing. “There have to be bears,” he says. The views of Capitol Peak are off the hook. “Then you’re hit with the smell of the methane leaking through cracks or holes left by the coal company for venting. It’s intense,” Blaney says. “The gas is potent. You could ignite it.”
The sensory experience is “profound,” he adds. And unsettling. “It is such a beautiful place but there’s a dichotomy of having a former industrialized site for coal mining layered on top with this amazing scenery. It creates a kind of tension.”
In 2017, Caskey approached CORE, telling them the EPA and Colorado Energy Office expected big methane leaks to be present in Coal Basin. CORE gave him a small grant — a few thousand dollars — to start a stakeholder dialogue and get some initial measurements. They have since re-upped the grant a couple of times and have put over $175,000 of CORE funds into his efforts so far.
CORE has also received $1.2 million in congressionally-designated spending via the Department of Energy, $500,000 from Atlantic Aviation (in unrestricted funds to CORE with some of it being spent in Coal Basin), and $200,000 from Pitkin County to be spent by CORE on environmental permitting activities.
En route to the Forest Service’s June decision, CORE and Caskey “weathered bumps” that come with this type of innovation, Blaney says.
The challenges were nothing specific, “it’s just that no one has ever done what we’re doing on public land before or at an abandoned mine site,” he adds. “Those two wrinkles created challenges that were difficult to anticipate, but I think we’ve settled into a good place with the Forest Service, because all we’re proposing is a scientific study. We’re not planning to impact or modify the landscape in any way, shape or form.”
Blaney says he isn’t surprised the Forest Service gave Caskey the categorical exclusion, and he thinks it bodes well that the agency “is open to exploring this experimental approach.”
Methane may one day power the kilns Caskey uses to make bricks from the mud in Paonia Reservoir, but the power will come from methane captured at the Elk Creek Mine. “Coal Basin,” he says, “is purely for the climate change impact.”
Greg Poschman, a Pitkin County commissioner, said, “What we learn will inform efforts to mitigate fugitive coal mine methane from closed mines everywhere. This pilot project has challenges which are unique to closed mines. While they present tough problems nationally and globally, they cannot be ignored any longer. We have the privilege of doing R & D!”
“And then, this is the fun part,” Caskey adds. “Burning methane generates water. You know, it’s not millions of acre-feet per year; you’re not going to solve the Colorado River crisis. But you are going to help small diversified farms. Or people using residential wells, which are low priority in terms of water rights. So if the river district ever made a call on that stem of the river, methane burning could generate that little bit of bonus water that would let people keep their wells.”
The categorical exclusion, classified under the National Environmental Policy Act, now paves the way for Caskey to at least test the mines in Coal Basin to see how much and where methane is venting.
In a few weeks, he will partner with Boulder-based Scientific Aviation, which will do fly-overs of the site to find the gassiest vents. Then he’ll hike-in continuous monitoring systems, set up on tripods and powered by solar panels, that will quantify the methane output. After several months of data collection, he’ll write a proposal for what he sees as the best ways to dispose of the gas. And then he’ll take it back to the Coal Basin Methane Advisory Board for more review — before petitioning the Forest Service for more precedent-setting access.
Meanwhile, recreationists can still access the 221-acre Coal Basin site, which the philanthropist grandsons of Walmart-founder Sam Walton bought in 2015 and turned into a bike park threaded through with singletrack.
Aspen leaves flutter in the breeze, just as they did before the advent of mining. Singing creeks and moon-reflecting ponds complement bluebird days and constellation-filled nights. The combination of past-present, toxic-pristine is kind of like Chernobyl after the explosion. Like Blaney says, it vibrates with tension. The gas pouring into the atmosphere there isn’t good for anyone. But the Forest Service’s recent OK of a major step in Caskey’s project could bring Coal Basin, and the atmosphere, closer to pure again.
Correction: On Tuesday, July 4, 2023, at 7:45 a.m., this story was updated to clarify that a bike park in Coal Basin is not on Pitkin County open space. The story also was updated July 5, 2023, at 3:15 p.m. to clarify that Paonia Reservoir is part of the agricultural irrigation system for the valley along the North Fork of the Gunnison River and that the Elk Creek Mine where methane is being captured to power Aspen Skiing Co.’s operations is near Somerset in Gunnison County.