Less than two weeks before world leaders convened in Paris for the international climate change conference, the Obama administration again proposed letting coal companies mine in a roadless area of Colorado's North Fork Valley.
The U.S. Forest Service wants to allow mining despite its own new analysis that reveals the mining could result in a net cost to society of as much as $12 billion. The agency did a social cost of carbon analysis — which includes impacts on agricultural productivity, human health, and property damages from increased flood risk, among other things — because a federal judge last year found the government's original environmental analysis failed to take a "hard look" at the potential contributions to climate change as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
At the time, District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson stopped the expansion of Arch Coal's West Elk Mine into the Sunset Roadless Area of the Gunnison National Forest near Paonia. That ruling was groundbreaking because it was the first time a judge blocked an approval of a coal mine because the government failed to grapple with the mine's impact on climate change.
The victory helped inspire a group of environmentalists to repeatedly sue the government for its failure to adequately consider climate change in its actions related to federal fossil fuels across the West. Despite the legal onslaught, the Obama administration largely has operated its coal, oil and gas programs as if climate change did not exist. The Forest Service's new proposal to allow mining in undeveloped areas of the North Fork Valley is the latest example of agencies continuing to defend the status quo.
"This massive giveaway to the coal industry undercuts the U.S.'s commitment to reducing climate pollution at a time when the world is looking to America for leadership," said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski, who represented the groups in federal court. "If there's any place to keep fossil fuel in the ground, it's here, where mining for dirty coal will release huge amounts of methane and destroy pristine wildlife habitat next to a wilderness area."
In its new draft environmental analysis, the Forest Service estimates that if allowed, the mining could contribute anywhere from 13.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to 43.2 million metric tons annually. The draft also stated that the mining could last until 2054, depending on the rate of production.
In keeping with the judge's ruling, the analysis also calculates how much additional greenhouse gas emissions would be released nationally if the country opens this area for mining. In the past, the government and industry have argued that if this coal isn't mined, coal from another mine will just replace it and the climate change impacts will be equivalent. But the agency's analysis estimates that in fact that's not the case: 131 million metric tons more climate change pollution could be released than if the mining didn't happen and other fuels for electricity were used.
Industry representatives and state officials were pleased with the government's proposal. Mike King, executive director for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, says reinstating the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception is "fundamental" to achieving the balance between conserving Colorado's landscapes and providing economic opportunities for local communities.
Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, says that even though current market conditions are challenging for coal companies, the Forest Service process to reopen North Fork roadless areas for mining is important. Right now, the demand for Colorado coal is shrinking because of competition from low-priced natural gas, and new state and federal air pollution regulations.
But that could change in the future, Sanderson says, and mines need to plan years ahead to acquire leases. Only two years of coal are left to mine under Arch Coal's current leases, according to the Forest Service analysis. Arch Coal spokeswoman Logan Bonacorsi said the proposal "will extend the life of the mine and help ensure the future viability of important, well-paying jobs in the region."
But environmental groups blasted the Obama administration for continuing to pursue a federal coal policy that they say is out of sync with President Barack Obama's climate change objectives.
"With Arch Coal on the verge of bankruptcy, the Obama administration should be helping the North Fork Valley become less reliant on the West Elk mine," says Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians.
Nichols says the proposal is all the more glaring given the timing, near the Paris climate change conference. By contrast, the United Kingdom this week announced plans to close its coal-fired power plants.
"Frankly, this is essentially giving the rest of the world the middle finger," he says.
The Forest Service expects to make a final decision next summer. Before any mining could start, the agencies would conduct a separate environmental review, which could take two to four years. — Elizabeth Shogren
A pumpjack is not a coal mine.
No, that's not the opening line to an avant garde poem. It's another way of saying:Coalbed methane mining is not mining for coal.
Coalbed methane is natural gas found in coal seams, and to "mine" it is to drill into the coal seam and extract it, much as one does with natural gas. To many this may seem a rather simple concept, but since the coalbed methane industry's emergence in the 1980s, there has been ample confusion surrounding the term.
In the last couple of years, coalbed methane has hit the headlines again, this time for its contribution to the Four Corners Methane Hot Spot, as well as for the thousands of abandoned wells the industry left behind after the 2008 bust. The misunderstanding is back, too, as was evident in national media stories about that Hot Spot, many of which conflated coalbed methane mining with coal mining. But coalbed methane mining is just another form of natural gas drilling, albeit with its own set of ups and downs.
On that note, here are seven things you need to know about coalbed methane, natural gas and methane emissions:
Coalbed methan is oil and gas, or at least a subset of the industry.
Methane is a combustible hydrocarbon and a potent greenhouse gas, though a relatively short-lived one. When in the atmosphere, methane breaks down after about 12 years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As a result, its global warming potential is 87 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20 year span, but about 31 times carbon dioxide's over 100 years.
Natural gas is methane, accompanied by relatively small amounts of other hydrocarbons. "Conventional" natural gas occurs in reservoirs, usually in sandstone, thousands of feet under the surface. And it's typically drilled with vertical drilling technique, and the well is "stimulated" with single-stage hydraulic fracturing. The pressure of the gas then forces it to the surface. Oil and natural gas, along with briny water, often occur together, so a typical well produces oil, natural gas and water. The water, usually contaminated, must be disposed of. In oil fields, the natural gas is vented or "flared" when there is no infrastructure to capture it.
Methane is in coal seams. And that can be hazardous for underground coal miners. If the methane concentration exceeds 5 percent, it can explode. Higher than that and it displaces oxygen, so miners can asphyxiate. Underground coal mines typically drill wells into the coal seam from the surface to vent the methane. That's why coal mines are some of the nation's largest single sources of methane emissions. When those coal seams breach the surface, at "outcrops," they can spontaneously leak the methane into the air or water (ditto if you drill a water well through a coal seam). Sometimes the methane concentration from these geologic seeps is high enough to ignite water or air. The methane can also displace soil oxygen, killing vegetation around the seep.
Coalbed methane is natural gas, though typically more pure — i.e. it has a higher concentration of methane. And so drillers have tried to go after it. Since coal formations are typically shallower than conventional oil and gas reservoirs, drilling for coalbed methane should be easy. It's not. That's because ...
A coalbed methane well is a water well. Methane is bonded to the coal by water pressure. In order to "liberate" the methane, the water must be removed. The pumpjacks you see at coalbed methane wells are actually pumping up water — anywhere from 1,000 to 17,000 gallons per day. The gas follows, and is piped off to be processed. Dealing with that water in a responsible manner can be expensive. It's trucked to disposal sites, injected deep underground, put in evaporating ponds or run through treatment facilities.
Sucking the water out of the ground and then sticking it back in can cause the earth to do strange things. Commercial production of coalbed methane got its start in the San Juan Basin in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico in the late 1980s, as producers rushed to meet a 1992 deadline for tax credits for "unconventional" oil and gas drilling. By the early 1990s, the weirdness had begun.
Methane showed up in domestic wells and the crawlspaces of homes. Huge swaths of trees, shrubs and grass died off along parts of the coal outcrop. In one area, methane emanated from the earth with such force that it blew particles of sand into the air. A freshwater spring, miles from the nearest well, became so hot that its waters could no longer be used for domestic purposes or irrigation.
It's generally accepted that all of that was the result of the vast dehydrating of the coal formation. In just those first years, billions of gallons of water were pulled out of the coal seam aquifer, thus liberating huge quantities of methane. What wasn't captured by the wells sought the path of least resistance, toward the outcrop. The geologic seeps have collectively become one of the biggest sources of methane emissions, and thus contributors to the Four Corners Hot Spot, in the region. The new hot spring was most likely caused by the injection of water into a deep disposal well some 9 miles away. These sorts of injection wells have also caused earthquakes in Oklahoma, the Raton Basin in Colorado and New Mexico, and elsewhere. — Jonathan Thompson