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Gunnison County looking for answers from BLM for coal mine methane leasing

“Until we have the ability to lease the coal mine methane, we can’t move forward”

By Cayla Vidmar

The North Fork Coal Mine Methane Working Group (NFCMMWG) is working through arguably one of the biggest hurdles to leasing coal mine methane—the permitting process through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Earlier in December, the group sent a letter to the BLM with two suggestions for proposed leasing mechanisms, as a way to begin the conversation with the BLM and come to a solution for leasing hurdles.

The NFCMMWG, which is comprised of more than a dozen stakeholders, government entities, and land and resource managers, spent six months, according to Gunnison county commissioner John Messner, looking at coal mine methane as a resource, how to capture and utilize it, or mitigate it, and forming a good baseline of knowledge in order to move forward. Messner says there are two or three leasing projects that have been stalled due to uncertainty of BLM regulations and permitting for coal mine methane utilization or mitigation.

Coal mine methane accounts for eight percent of total global methane emissions, according to the Colorado Energy Office (CEO) website. Based on a recent study by the CEO, there is a total of 89 megawatts of electricity potential from coal mine methane in Colorado, with 80 percent of that potential originating in Somerset, located in Gunnison County.

Messner explains that all coal mines, whether active, abandoned or inactive, are emitting methane. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, methane warms the planet 86 times more than carbon dioxide does, making it a far more potent greenhouse gas.

But, as stated in the NFCMMWG letter to the BLM, “The BLM has provided mixed messages as to a path forward with leasing,” in order to mitigate or utilize coal mine methane, which prompted the NFCMMWG to suggest two mechanisms in its letter to the BLM.

Messner says coal mine methane can be utilized to create electricity, or “scrubbed” and piped to use as natural gas, or it can be mitigated by being burned, which turns the methane into the less effective greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

There is currently one electricity-producing coal mine methane project in Colorado. Oxbow Mining LLC, Vessels Coal Gas, Gunnison Energy LLC, Aspen Skiing Company and Holy Cross Energy partnered in 2015 to build the Elk Creek Mine near Somerset, which generates three megawatts of power and destroys the remaining methane emissions, according to the CEO website.

Regardless of knowing that the methane could be utilized or mitigated in the North Fork Valley, the NFCMMWG hit a wall in moving potential coal mine methane projects forward.

“We came to a point that we found it is possible to capture methane in the North Fork Valley, it’s possible to mitigate, it’s economically feasible to utilize the methane, but we ran into issues with how we handle the permitting with these particular leases,” says Messner.

The letter to the BLM offers two suggested mechanisms for leasing coal mine methane projects, based on two situations: where there is an existing solid mineral lease and where there is not an existing solid mineral lease. “What we’re doing right now is asking the BLM to provide a response to those leasing mechanisms. We’re just saying these are some ideas that we came up with, tell us what you think,” says Messner.

Messner says they were hoping for a response from the BLM by the end of January, but with the federal government shutdown, he’s not expecting an answer soon. At this time, it’s a waiting game, but the conversation on how to permit the utilization or mitigation of coal mine methane is under way.

“This is a big hurdle. There are two or three projects that are ready to go in the North Fork Valley, but we can’t do anything. Until we have the ability to lease the coal mine methane, we can’t move forward,” says Messner.

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