Entrepreneur thought it was good to study methane leaks from Colorado coal mines

An entrepreneur and environmental scientist has moved one step closer to capturing some of the estimated 1.3 million cubic feet of methane gas that leaks from coal mines in Pitkin County each year, a major step toward one day cutting carbon emissions from mines. and a harmful greenhouse gas in a fuel.

Chris Caskey received a “categorical exclusion” from the White River National Forest on June 22, allowing him to begin inventorying and studying methane gas leaking from coal mine vents over 5 square miles in Coal Basin near Redstone.

The decision authorizes Caskey’s Delta Brick & Climate Company to use ground-based and aircraft monitoring units to collect data in the White River National Forest that will determine the volume, concentration and location of methane gas released into the atmosphere from mining wells and other surface features. pass along. .

Jennifer Schuller, deputy district warden for the national forest, called the decision “setting a precedent,” though it is only 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 non-profit organization dedicated to leading the Roaring Fork Valley toward a carbon-free, energy-neutral future.

A man stands at a mine vent, which has melted nearby snow, and watches a scientific device.
Environmental scientist and entrepreneur Chris Caskey at a coal mine in the White River National Forest. Claskey and a team of environmentalists received permission from the US Forest Service to study methane, a greenhouse gas released from abandoned mines in Coal Basin. (Dallas Blaney, CORE)

In 2019, Caskey began harvesting sediment from the silt-choked Paonia Reservoir, which feeds farms in the Gunnison Valley, and repurposed it into bricks and the kind of colorful, glazed interior tiles you’d find in a high-end design magazine. Through this process, he is already freeing the water flow in the Paonia Reservoir and transforming the sticky bottom into something useful. And he hopes to one day use captured methane to fuel the kilns for his bricks.

But his larger focus is now on the mines in Pitkin County, which release methane, a greenhouse gas released from coal and surrounding rock strata during mining operations.

If Caskey can map out the leaks, he says he could destroy some of the methane vents from the mines that have been closed for 30 years. All this time later, that gas still contributes to an estimated 14 deaths a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“But that’s just the EPA’s best estimate,” Caskey says. “We don’t know how much gas there actually is. It can 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 is literally killing people, both from adverse heat effects and from smog and respiratory irritants, which can cause premature deaths from asthma.”

Caskey wants people to think the situation is “actually urgent.” Like, what if more than one kid a month fell down an open mine shaft and died? he says. “We probably want to do something about that. But because we don’t know exactly what deaths the leaks are causing, and because they’re more common in pollution-stressed communities, we just don’t think about it.”

Regardless of the number of deaths, he says the problem must be addressed. Methane has at least 28 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide, and experts agree that capturing mine methane would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Estimates of methane emissions aggregated by major oil and natural gas segments in the United States are shown in the chart below. (Provided by Environmental Protection Agency)

Options for destroying it include burning it and using it to generate electricity. Some 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 business, Caskey is the general manager of MethaneRX, founded in 2003 to work with mining operators, electric utilities and coal communities on “economically viable projects that destroy or use methane for a clean and productive purpose,” the company says.

Current MethaneRX projects include the Elk Creek Mine in Gunnison, which uses captured gas to power the operations of all four Aspen Skiing Company 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’ll hike up a 40-foot (12-meter) wide road that cuts through the otherwise pristine White River National Forest. Birds sing. “There must be bears,” he says. The view of Capitol Peak is breathtaking. “Then you’re hit by the smell of the methane leaking through cracks or holes the coal company has left for you to vent. It’s intense,” says Blaney. “The gas is powerful. You could ignite it.

Coal Basin, in the White River National Forest, in the spring of 2023. Five abandoned coal mines here emit an estimated 1.3 million cubic feet of methane gas into the atmosphere each year, and entrepreneur Christopher Caskey and the Aspen-based Community Office for Resource Efficiency tries to soften it. (Provided by Dallas Blaney, CORE)

The sensory experience is “profound,” he adds. And disturbing. “It’s such a beautiful place, but there’s a dichotomy of having a former industrialized coal mining site on top of this amazing landscape. That creates a kind of tension.”

In 2017, Caskey approached CORE and told them that the EPA and Colorado Energy Office expected large methane leaks in Coal Basin. CORE gave him a small grant—a few thousand dollars—to spark stakeholder dialogue and take some initial measurements. Since then, they’ve raised the grant a few times and have poured over $175,000 in CORE funds into its efforts to date.

CORE has also received $1.2 million in congressional designated spending through the Department of Energy, $500,000 from Atlantic Aviation (in unrestricted funds to CORE with a portion being spent in Coal Basin), and $200,000 from Pitkin County to CORE to spend on environmental protection. allow activities.

Heading into the Forest Service’s decision in June, CORE and Caskey “weathered the 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 do on public land or an abandoned mining site before,” he adds. ‘Those two wrinkles created challenges that were difficult to anticipate, but I think we have found a good place at Staatsbosbeheer, because all we propose is a scientific study. We do not intend to influence or modify the landscape in any way, shape or form.”

Blaney says he’s not 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.”

A man standing in the snow points to a snow-covered reservoir.
Entrepreneur Chris Caskey points out holes in the ice on Paonia Reservoir. He wants to extract clayey sludge from the impoundment and use it to make bricks and tiles in a factory powered by coal methane. (William Woody, special for The Colorado Sun)

Methane may one day power the furnaces Caskey uses to make bricks from the mud in the Paonia Reservoir, but the power will come from methane captured at the Elk Creek Mine. “Coal Basin,” he says, “is purely for the impact of climate change.”

Greg Poschman, a Pitkin County Commissioner, said: “What we are learning will aid efforts to reduce fugitive methane from coal mines around the world. This pilot project has challenges unique to closed mines. While they face tough problems nationally and globally, concerns, they can no longer be ignored. We are privileged to do R&D!”

“And then this is the fun part,” Caskey adds. “When methane is burned, water is released. You know, it’s not about millions of acres per year; you’re not going to solve the Colorado River crisis. But you are going to help small diversified farms. Or people who use residential wells, which have low priority in terms of water rights. So if the river district were ever to call on that stem of the river, the methane burning could generate that little bit of bonus water that would allow people to maintain their wells.

Delta Brick and Climate Company founder Christopher Caskey points to several bricks heated to different temperatures at the company’s brick factory in Montrose, Colo, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. (William Woody, special for The Colorado Sun)

The categorical exclusion, classified under the National Environmental Policy Act, now clears the way for Caskey to at least test the mines in Coal Basin to see how much and where methane is being released.

In a few weeks, he will work with Boulder-based Scientific Aviation, which will make flyovers of the site to find the most gas-rich vents. Then he will walk into continuous monitoring systems set up on tripods and powered by solar panels that will quantify methane production. After several months of data collection, he will write a proposal for what he sees as the best way 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 Walmart founder Sam Walton’s philanthropist grandsons purchased in 2015 and turned into Pitkin County Open Space and trails intersected with singletrack.

Aspen leaves flutter in the wind 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 a bit like Chernobyl after the explosion. As Blaney says, it vibrates with tension. The gas flowing into the atmosphere there is not good for anyone. But the Forest Service’s recent approval for a major step in Caskey’s project could bring Coal Basin and its atmosphere closer to pure again.

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