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Gunnison County is leading the way toward North Fork methane capture

The formation of a working group has begun

By Toni Todd

The quest to capture and utilize coalbed methane leaking from coal mines in the North Fork has begun in earnest, with Gunnison County commissioner John Messner leading the charge.

“The idea right now is to convene a North Fork methane working group,” Messner says, “to get all of the relevant players to discuss what it will take to capture and utilize the methane.”

The county has gotten a verbal agreement from Arch Coal, owner of the West Elk Mine, to help with the development of a methane capture system. Messner hopes for buy-in from all the mines in the area, to create a comprehensive program not just for the West Elk Mine, but for the entire North Fork region.

Several state agencies have expressed their support for the idea. Messner says the working group may include representatives from the Department of Local Affairs, the Colorado Energy Office, Colorado Health and The Environment and the Department of Natural Resources. Governor John Hickenlooper’s senior advisor, Jamie Van Leeuwen, has given the project a thumbs-up, Messner says, and positive vibes are coming from Senator Michael Bennet’s camp, too.

An invitation has also been sent to Senator Cory Gardner’s office. Conservation groups such as Crested Butte’s High Country Conservation Advocates, and Western Slope Conservation Center have been contacted, with the hope they too will consider sending representatives to participate.

“We’d also like to get the local electric utilities involved,” Messner said.

Messner has drawn up a draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) to provide a foundation for beginning the process. “I developed it based on one that was used for a previous coal mine working group,” he said. This one, however, is specific to methane capture and utilization.

The mission is to develop and implement a comprehensive plan for capture and utilization of methane in the North Fork coal mining region. The draft identifies six goals, in the order they’ll need to progress:

•Develop a definition of feasibility for coalbed methane capture and utilization.

•Analyze and research technologies and determine what will work best in the North Fork area.

•Analyze and support the development of markets for the methane.

•Identify funding opportunities, i.e., private and government grants.

•Create an implementation strategy, complete with a timeline.


Messner emphasized that this is just a draft, that nobody’s signed off on it yet, and the process is still in its infancy. The working group is just now being formed. As early as it is in the process, however, Messner is not interested in dawdling, nor will he be content with this becoming just another group of people sitting around talking about a problem.

“I don’t want to mess around with this,” Messner said. “I want to move forward. My goal is to convene the first meeting of the working group within a month, and to begin building the framework for accomplishing this.”

In recent weeks, two editorials have appeared in the Grand Junction Sentinel and one in the Denver Post supporting coalbed methane capture in the North Fork area.

Methane is one of the most powerful greenhouse gases, and the North Fork area is considered one of greatest sources of the gas in the state.

Messner says the prospect of capturing and utilizing methane in the North Fork represents a great opportunity for Colorado, “especially with Governor Hickenlooper’s commitment to the Paris Climate Accord. The governor is also committed to energy development, and recognizes that coal mining is an important part of Colorado’s economy. The idea is to create a win-win,” Messner says, for the coal mines, for local energy production, and for the environment.

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