Pitkin County to ‘get the ball rolling’ on Coal Basin methane project

Using a methane sensor, Chris Caskey demonstrates where methane is leaking from a closed mine vent during a stakeholders hike to the Dutch Creek Mines on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021 near Redstone.
Luna Anna ArcheyAspen Journalism

Pitkin County will contribute up to $200,000 to begin a process to figure out how to mitigate the massive amount of methane gas seeping out of former coal mines in Coal Basin above Redstone.

County commissioners directed staff Tuesday to establish an agreement with the Community Office for Resource Efficiency to pay for a “flow test” that will determine the best way to deal with the yearly methane output from the mines, which equals the annual emissions from 180,000 passenger vehicles, according to Mona Newton, a former CORE director and a consultant on the project.

“I’m concerned about the tons and tons of methane leaking out and not the $200,000,” said Commissioner Steve Child, who referred to the money as “peanuts” compared to the environmental damage the gas causes. “It would be the most amazing thing commissioners could do all year to support this project.”

The mines, which closed in 1991, vent 9,300 metric tons of methane per year, according to a memo about the project from CORE and a consulting firm.

“That’s more than the next five categories of emissions combined in the county (residential energy, commercial energy, transportation, aviation and waste),” according to the memo.

The flow test is the first step toward determining the best plan for mitigating the methane, which could include flaring it or using it to generate electricity, said Chris Caskey, founder of Delta Brick and Climate, which has been hired by CORE to lead development of the project.

The methane leaks cannot be simply capped because the gas will always find a way out, Caskey said.

Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper included a $1.2 million appropriation in the 2022 federal budget to fund the Coal Basin project. However, that money won’t become available for three to six months, so Pitkin County’s contribution Tuesday allows the project to begin sooner, Newton said after the meeting.

Several nonprofits and private companies have expressed interest in the project, including Wilderness Workshop, Holy Cross Energy, Aspen Skiing Co. and Roaring Fork Conservancy, according to the memo. In addition, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management also interested figuring out how to mitigate the methane.

However, Caskey said Pitkin County communities and stakeholders will decide the best method.

Public meetings are scheduled March 31 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Third Street Center in Carbondale and on April 4 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Propaganda Pie in Redstone. A third meeting date is yet to be determined.

Commissioner Greg Poschman said the staggering amount of methane emitted by the Coal Basin mines means something needs to be done about it.

“That helps me understand why this is an important project,” he said.

Board Chairwoman Patti Clapper said Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury — who didn’t attend the Coal Basin portion of the meeting — was concerned about spending $200,000 on the project from the county’s general fund. Clapper asked that staff look into other funding options that might be available.

Still, she said the project is definitely worthwhile.

“I don’t see how we can say no at this point,” Clapper said. “Let’s get the ball rolling.”