WSCU grad student at project’s helm
By Olivia Lueckemeyer
For counties across Colorado’s Western Slope, the decrease in coal manufacturing means fewer jobs and decreased revenue as the world turns to natural gas as its primary source of energy.
Western State Colorado University master’s program student Chris Nutgrass is attempting to assess the feasibility of methane capture from surrounding coalmines—a practice that could provide relief for many counties that have fallen victim to the dying industry.
“As part of my master’s project, I’m interested in sustainable development as well as natural resource questions, and how communities utilize and manage their natural resources,” Nutgrass explained to the Board of County Commissioners on September 27. “With coal methane capture, there is a potential for carbon trading with different markets, which helps Gunnison County reach its renewable energy goals.”
Methane is released from coal and the surrounding rocks during and after mining activity and is a known culprit of global warming. The idea of coal methane capture is to use the released gas for electricity generation, but the practice could have other benefits as well.
“Other possibilities may be to use [the methane] as a chemical feedstock in industrial processes, or even the potential to flare the gas and sell offset, or maybe use it for compressed natural gas fuel,” Nutgrass explained. “I am currently researching more about these options.”
According to a report from the Colorado Energy Office, the Somerset area has the highest potential for coal methane capture in the state.
“The mines in Somerset have the potential to produce 35 megawatts of electricity from the gas that is currently being drained,” Nutgrass explained. “But there are a lot of other possibilities other than electric generation.”
The practice could also provide employment to some mine workers who lost their jobs when the coal industry went under. According to an article in the Denver Post, statewide coal production has plummeted by 50 percent since 2004, costing hundreds of jobs. In 2016, Arch Coal, Inc., owners of the West Elk Mine in Somerset, cut a quarter of its employees due to the decline in the demand for coal. The experience and knowledge of that workforce could lend itself to the implementation of coal methane capture.
“Arch Coal may be able to make some money from this to stay in business, as they are suffering and dealing with bankruptcy right now,” said Nutgrass. “Oxbow as well, because they have the resources and the experience.”
According to Nutgrass, clean energy has been on Colorado governor Hickenlooper’s radar for quite some time, and with recently implemented restrictions on the amount of methane that can come from oil and natural gas, controlling coal methane is the next step.
“The governor’s office has made combating methane an issue, and Gunnison County could play a huge role in this,” Nutgrass explained.
Apparently the commissioners agree. They drafted a letter of support for Nutgrass’ project, detailing how the decreased production of coal has hurt Gunnison County by way of decreased revenue and employment.
“The Board of County Commissioners views this project as an important element as we seek to adapt to the changing environment surrounding our energy production,” the letter explained. “Methane from coal mining is a resource that we cannot afford to ignore as an energy option. This resource has potential benefits for the economy, environment and the citizens and surrounding counties.”
Nutgrass plans to use the letter as evidence that coal methane capture has garnered the support of the general public, which he hopes will aid in his efforts to acquire the data necessary to pursue his goal of implementing coal methane capture on the Western Slope.
“I am very thankful for the support of the county,” Nutgrass said. “My next steps will be researching previous efforts around this issue in the region and around the world. There are hundreds of questions to be answered from ‘What is the resource’ to ‘How can it be utilized’ to ‘Who will utilize it,’ and so on. My intention is not to answer all of these questions, but to begin making some headway that the county can then use to make a more informed decision on if coal mine methane capture is something it should pursue further.
The commissioners expressed their unanimous support for the letter, a draft of which was approved at an October 4 meeting.