Aspen Journalism: Dealing with the methane escaping from Coal Basin’s shuttered mines sparks debate
A community meeting revealed tension over the project’s global climate benefits and local environmental impacts.
On a dark evening in early October, about 20 people gathered in a dimly-lit room on the bottom floor of the Redstone Church. Many of the chairs were empty, but a smattering of locals from around the small, tightknit hamlet of Redstone had come to learn more about a project that could transform Coal Basin, a mountain valley just west of town.
For more than a century, invisible clouds of methane gas have been leaking out of several former coal mines that once operated in the basin. Although methane occurs naturally in coal deposits, ripping a hole in the mountain in the form of a coal mine releases the methane much faster. A potent greenhouse gas, methane is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year time period. (Over a 20-year period, methane is 84 times more powerful.)
Standing in front of the audience, Chris Caskey, a Paonia-based scientist and architect of a proposal to deal with the methane leaks, pulled up a picture of one of the mine portals on a projector screen. The image was taken with an infrared camera, which made visible the methane billowing out from around the concrete header on the mine portal.
“These mines are doing $12 million of damage a year on society,” said Caskey, referring to the social cost of methane, a calculation that seeks to put a dollar figure on the total damages to society as a whole by emitting 1 ton of methane into the atmosphere. This includes, for instance, contributing to climate change, damaging public health, and reducing the yield of agricultural ecosystems.
Not everyone was convinced. For many locals, the methane leaking out of the mine was less problematic than the potential changes to what they consider a treasured backyard wilderness encompassing 6,000 mountainous acres of aspen groves, waterfalls, and a new mountain-bike trail system.
The meeting was supposed to inform locals about the project — and ultimately win their support — but it also offered a window into a much deeper debate in the fight against climate change: How can the global benefits of a project that would reduce heat-trapping emissions be reconciled with the impacts the project would inevitably have on the local environment?
For Caskey and the other proponents of the Coal Basin methane project, their biggest hurdle might not be the layers of bureaucracy they will have to navigate, but instead convincing Redstone residents that doing something is better than doing nothing.
Identify and authorize
The Coal Basin mines are among thousands of shuttered coal mines across the country still leaking methane long after they have closed. So far, Caskey has identified 12 major leaks in Coal Basin, but there are probably more, which he hopes to find with a drone or by helicopter. Using a portable methane sensor, he has measured methane from two of those leaks (The only two that are easy to measure) at a combined rate of 100 to 200 tons per year.
Extrapolating that number using Environmental Protection Agency data, he believes the Coal Basin mines are emitting roughly 10,000 tons — or the equivalent of 248,040 tons of carbon dioxide, which is roughly half of Pitkin County’s total annual greenhouse-gas emissions.
That situation is untenable to Caskey, a self-described “climate guy” who learned about the problem a few years ago and began thinking of solutions. Backed by almost $900,000 in funding from private companies such as Atlantic Aviation, nonprofits such as Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), and Pitkin County, he hopes he can find a way to deal with the methane leaks.
He has proposed capturing the methane and either using it or destroying it, depending on which option proves most viable. The purpose of the meeting was to outline the next steps in the process to identify a project and get it authorized — and, hopefully, gain more support from the Redstone community, which appears skeptical, based on the sentiment expressed at the October meeting and in subsequent interviews.
Early this month, Caskey submitted clarifications for his proposal to the U.S. Forest Service asking for permission to run a “flow test” this spring or summer at the mines in Coal Basin. The test would deliver more precise information about the methane and other gases coming out of the mines, revealing the exact quantity and quality of the methane — and the best option for dealing with it.
If the test reveals that the gas contains a minimum of 18% methane, the most viable project would be destroying the methane through flaring, or burning, it.
If the test shows the emissions have more than 30% methane, then it would be possible to capture the methane and convert it to electricity — a much costlier and more environmentally-invasive project involving pumping stations and building a pipe (either above ground or below) to bring the gas down.
Doing nothing is also an option, Caskey said, but, given the urgency of the climate crisis, it was not one he favored.
Reading the room
As the meeting progressed, tensions in the room rose as Caskey described what the flow test would entail. The test requires having to haul up a large, heavy measuring device to the mine portals in Coal Basin. To do that, they would have to re-open the old road, building culverts over the stream crossings, so that a truck could get through.
A woman in the audience asked, “Any other way to do this without dragging equipment up there?”
“Will this project kill our dwindling elk herd?” asked Gentrye Houghton, a Redstone resident.
Caskey assured her that a project to deal with the methane would not kill the elk herd. Still, his affirmations that any project proposal would first undergo environmental impact studies under the National Environmental Policy Act seemed not to have much sway.
“That’s not what the residents want to see up there,” a man said. Another person asked how many diesel generators a methane electrification project would require.
Caskey tried to acknowledge the sentiments diplomatically. “I’m hearing that people have noise concerns,” he said.
Cost versus benefit
A month after the meeting, I met with Houghton at the Redstone General Store. Thirty-seven years old with short pink hair, Houghton is publisher and editor-in-chief of the Crystal Valley Echo, a local paper, and works as a massage therapist on the side. She moved to Redstone almost 10 years ago, after an internship with Rock and Ice, a now-defunct Carbondale magazine.
In 2018, she bought a house — formerly the town laundromat, and, at 430 square feet, “literally the smallest home in Redstone,” she said. Coal Basin is where she taught herself to backcountry ski on a hillside she later learned was not a natural slope but a mound of old coal tailings. These days, she estimates she is up in the basin at least once a day to recreate, depending on the season.
Houghton first heard about Caskey’s methane project proposal while scrolling through the minutes from a Pitkin County commissioners meeting. The commissioners had allocated $200,000 to the project, which Houghton said helps illuminate some of her and other Redstone residents’ broader frustrations about the project.
“The big sentiment is: Is this Big Money bulldozing us over?” she said. “Is this just a pet project for billionaires who don’t have to look at it in their backyard?”
Many residents, she said, remember Coal Basin’s reclamation process, a $4-million restoration effort that lasted until 2002 to clean up the environmental disaster left over from the mining operations. They fear that a methane project could undo those decades of progress.
Houghton pushed back at the notion that Redstone residents were prioritizing their own interests over addressing climate change. The 10,000 tons produced annually by the Coal Basin mines are just a small fraction of the 570 million tons of methane emissions that occur globally. According to her, many locals are unconvinced that the environmental impacts of the project are worth the benefits.
Chuck Downey, another longtime Redstone resident, echoed those feelings. Growing up in the Fryingpan Valley, he saw how the Ruedi Dam construction in the 1960s forever changed the valley. Afterward, he vowed to fight if another project that would negatively affect his local ecosystem ever arose.
Of particular concern to him was the electricity-generation option. Initially, Caskey had hoped the flow-test results would support his idea to convert the methane leaking from the coal mines into electricity. However, based on the lessons learned from the nearby methane-to-electricity power plant at a mine in Somerset (one of only two such facilities in the country), he said he now questions whether electricity generation from the Coal Basin methane would be viable.
Downey would be more amenable to Caskey’s other proposal — flaring the methane — but he said he would still not endorse the plan, believing that the amount of methane leaking from the mines is too small to warrant the impacts to national forest land.
“The way I see it,” he said, “what’s being proposed is indeed a really good idea, but it’s in the wrong place.”
Caskey isn’t surprised that locals are wary of the project.
“I run a for-profit company. Anytime one shows up in your town, you should be suspicious,” he said. Overall, he said, the reception to his proposal has been overwhelmingly positive, but, the closer you get physically to where the project would occur, the more concerns there are.
At the meeting, proponents expressed how Coal Basin’s mining history and already disturbed status make it an ideal location for a methane project.
“It’s not a pristine mountain area,” a man said. “It’s not even fully-restored.”
A lady in a puffy pink jacket objected to his assessment, saying that she hikes in Coal Basin regularly.
“I know what I’m talking about,” she said tartly.
For Caskey, the local impacts aren’t the only questions relevant to the methane project. Wealthy Coloradans have benefited from resource exploitation, he said. “The more pertinent question is: ‘What responsibility do we have to clean up the mess related to that exploitation given that it hurts other people?’”
Another proponent reminded the room that Coal Basin’s minerals are owned by the Bureau of Land Management, which manages resources for all Americans, not just the few who live in Redstone.
“What if this project could contribute to good?” the person said. “It could be a model for the rest of the world — opportunity for Redstone to rally around in a time when so much is wrong.”
“We need more studies,” said a man in a blue fleece.
“Oh, there will definitely be more studies,” said Caskey, flipping the projector to the next slide.
Sarah Tory is a freelance journalist based in Carbondale. Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering the environment in collaboration with The Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post Independent. For more, visit http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is supported by the Catena Foundation, which is affiliated with the owner of the parcel home to the mountain-bike trail network referenced in the story. Aspen Journalism is| also supported by Pitkin County’s Healthy Community Fund. Aspen Journalism is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.