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.
REDSTONE — There’s a putrid, damp breeze blowing from a breach in the meadow, where, decades ago, coal-laden trucks rolled in and out of the now abandoned and not quite sealed Coal Basin mines.
Marlaina Murphy leans close to the rocky void with a methane-detecting gizmo. The Gazoscan portable emissions detector screeches.
“Wow, I got 23,000. Try to beat my high score,” she says, handing off the phaser-esque methane sniffer to Teddy Loof, who sticks it into the dank vent.
“Oh I beat it,” he says. “37,000. 38,000. Whoa, 39,000! What does that mean?”
It means there’s a lot of methane leaking from the old Coal Basin mines on the eastern flank of Huntsman Ridge above the Crystal River Valley. From 1956 to 1990, five coal mines in the 5.2-square-mile Coal Basin produced some 58 million tons of coal. Today, methane rising from the remediated but leaky mine could be damaging the climate as much as all the carbon dioxide emissions from homes, buildings, businesses and cars in Pitkin County.
That’s why Murphy and Loof are fiddling around with high-tech methane sniffers. They are residents of the Roaring Fork Valley volunteering in an effort to measure methane emanating from Coal Basin mines. Last month they were among a dozen volunteers humping tripod-mounted sensors deep into the White River National Forest. Those solar-powered detectors will deliver accurate measurements of methane that could support the installation of flares that would drastically reduce the methane pouring from the abandoned mines by burning it.
Installing flares in a remediated landscape where 30 years of work has all but erased the creek-fouling, forest-tainting impact of a century of coal mining will not be an easy decision. Measuring methane is the first step in what could become a fight pitting the future of mine clean-up in a remote valley against the urgent push to cut climate-damaging emissions.
As one resident of the valley said, “it’s really a double-edged sword.”
Early measurements indicate a “super-emitter”
Last month a methane sensing airplane from Scientific Aviation crawled above the mine for a couple days, measuring emissions high above Coal Basin. One day the plane measured 112 kilograms per hour in the air. The next day it measured 488 kilograms and 125 kilograms per hour. According to NASA, anything above 10 kilograms — about 22 pounds — per hour is a “super-emitter.”
Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide and a major contributor to a warming climate. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the methane leaking from abandoned coal mines accounts for 8% of the nation’s methane emissions.
“We could be cutting this region’s emissions in half,” says Chris Caskey, the entrepreneur who is managing the methane-capture project with a Department of Energy grant obtained by the Aspen-based Community Office for Resource Efficiency. “Think about how challenging that would be to get all those cars running on electric, all those homes retrofitted with solar and on and on.”
The White River National Forest in June gave Caskey the go-ahead to study methane with the planes and on-the-ground sniffers hauled in by horses. By the fall, when Caskey has firm numbers from the ground and air surveillance, he could propose a more intensive plan to burn off that methane in tall, flame-topped vents. That would require more in-depth analysis by the Forest Service. And it would require addressing a very thorny question: Is burning methane to ease climate change worth undoing 30 years of reclamation?
Bring the sensors by horse, but flaring operations are a different game
Since Coal Basin’s operator, Mid-Continent Resources, filed bankruptcy in 1992, conservation groups, state regulators and the local community have spent millions repairing some 15 miles of roads above the 5-mile-wide mine deep beneath Huntsman’s Ridge. The 30 years of remediation work included removing underground storage tanks, diesel-soaked soils, stabilizing slopes and cleaning water draining from the mines into the Crystal River.
Today, much of the former mine is closed to vehicles. A 221-acre portion of the mine area was acquired several years ago by an heir to the Walmart fortune who is restoring the land and building free-for-everyone mountain bike trails. Coal Creek, Dutch Creek and Bear Creek gurgle through restored channels, funneling clean water into the Crystal River. Old mine roads flutter with wildflowers and clicking grasshoppers.
Residents of the tight-knit, development-averse communities along the Crystal River are not keen to see any return to the days of old. Their valley hummed with coal mining for a century. Now it’s an oasis; a quiet corner of busy Pitkin County where residents in former mining towns like Marble and Redstone labor to keep things bucolic.
The Crystal River Caucus formed in 1994 as the state launched mitigation of the shuttered mine. The caucus is a platform that makes recommendations to county commissioners, guided by residents working to protect the Crystal River Watershed and its communities.
Many of the members of the caucus worked in the mine, caucus chairman John Emerick said. And they’ve been intimately involved in the last 30 years of work to erase a century of coal mining from the basin around Coal Creek.
The caucus’s master plan supports limited building “and the desire to keep the rural character” of the valley, Emerick said.
His group has not opposed Caskey’s horse-hauled methane measuring machines on the reclaimed roads.
But should a future proposal seek to reopen roads for trucks that would service methane-capturing and flaring operations at mine vents, the caucus will take a position, Emerick said.
“We understand that methane is a really powerful greenhouse gas. We certainly understand the concerns on trying to mitigate methane,” he says. “But on the other hand, we have decades of mitigation work that have allowed that land to recover. There is concern about returning industrial use to that area. It’s really a double-edged sword.”
Caskey meets with the caucus regularly. He says they “talk about the trade-offs.”
“If we do have to mitigate, for example, we would have to open this road, which is an impact,” he says, winding through shin-deep grasses with a pack laden with his methane-measuring machines. “So there are positive and negative impacts with this proposal.”
Methane could be captured to generate electricity
Caskey is testing a big plan over McClure Pass in the North Fork Valley. He’s pulling capacity-clogging sediment from Paonia Reservoir and using it to make tiles and bricks. He hopes to plug the many mine vents leaking methane in the valley and funnel the gas toward a system where his Delta Brick and Climate Co. could convert the concentrated methane into electricity to power clay-baking ovens at a planned factory above an old coal mine near Paonia.
Aspen Skiing Co. in 2012 developed a first-in-the-West $6 million system to capture methane leaking from the Elk Creek coal mine in Somerset and convert it into enough electricity to power all four of the company’s ski areas, hotels and 17 restaurants. (Aspen Journalism last month reported that declining methane levels in the mine had ended the electrical generation but the gas was being flared.)
The plan at Coal Basin is not about electrical generation. Caskey, along with Aspen’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE, just wants to flare methane and lessen the leaky mines’ impact on the climate. The process should yield some water too, which is a byproduct of burning a biocarbon. Early projections from the EPA, Caskey says, indicate that burning methane around Coal Basin could create 1,000 gallons a day of water.
“That is a single-family home or small diversified farm,” says Caskey, who wonders if the new water could be donated to Pitkin County to augment junior water rights on the Crystal River. “This whole project, it’s about continuing to lessen this area’s impact on the atmosphere and our environment.”