Guest commentary: How an oil and gas man became a leading advocate for capture of potent greenhouse gas
Tom Vessels was eulogized last Friday afternoon in Denver. As sunshine streamed through the windows of the City Park Pavilion, stories were told about his backpacking trips, devotion to family and thirst for adventure, even something ribald he had once said at a beer festival.
Almost nothing was said about Vessels’ remarkable turn in business. He had followed his father into oil and gas then veered course. He wanted to capture methane, the primary constituent in natural gas, as it escaped from coal mines.
Colorado has hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of old coal mines from Trinidad to Louisville, Oak Creek to Crested Butte. All were dangerous, partly because methane emissions associated with coal along with coal dust could, with just the right spark, produce an explosion that maimed and killed men by the scores, sometimes the hundreds.
Vessels turned his attention to still working mines and extremely gassy mines near Paonia. He wanted to burn the methane to create electricity instead of allowing it to escape into the atmosphere.
Methane has 84 to 87 times the heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide as measured over 20 years. This short-term potency matters in a world that feels like a whistling tea kettle. Colorado’s temperatures this summer were the fourth hottest on record. Those on the Western Slope were the second hottest.
Vessels chose the Elk Creek Mine, a working mine, and then solicited partners. Holy Cross Energy, the local electrical cooperative for the Aspen and Vail areas, agreed to buy the power at a premium price. The Aspen Skiing Co. financed (and owns) the project, with a minority participation from Vessels. The power production happens to equal the amount consumed by the ski company.
The mine owner, Bill Koch, of the famous Kansas family, also agreed to participate. It’s fair to assume that profit, not global warming, motivated him.
Skico’s Auden Schendler, who had become fast friends with Vessels, wrote a remembrance after Vessels died of mesothelioma on Sept. 10. He called Vessels the “the leading authority in the United States” in coal-mine methane capture.
If an oil and gas man by trade and training, he said, Vessels was a scientist at heart. “Tom didn’t worry much about climate change in the first part of his life — he thought volcanoes emitted more CO2 — until he heard a scientist speak on the subject. And he thought: ‘Well then, we’ve got a problem.’”
Over the years, added Schendler, Vessels often shook his head at the failure of government and even environmental groups to understand the threat posed by methane.
In Denver, the service for Vessels was attended by 200 to 300 people, among them former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, whose term from 2005 to 2009 marked the start of Colorado’s big pivot in energy. Also there was Christopher Caskey, the managing director for Vessels Carbon Solutions.
Caskey, who has a Ph.D. in applied chemistry from the Colorado School of Mines and worked at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, wants to harness the methane emissions from the Dutch Creek No. 1, a former mine located 8 miles west of Redstone.
After an explosion in 1964 killed nine men, state officials called Dutch Creek the second gassiest coal mine in the United States. Another explosion in 1981 killed 15. Mining ceased in 1991.
In terms of global warming potential, according to one estimate, the emissions from this one mine surpass all others combined in Pitkin County, a long and skinny county that includes Aspen but also Dutch Creek. That says a lot. Think of all the private jets flying into Aspen, the mansions, the steady river of cars and trucks.
If Tom Vessels is now gone, he inspires those who follow. He was ahead of his time and, given the potency of methane, an important man of his time.
Longtime Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-journal about energy, water and other major transitions underway in Colorado and beyond. See bigpivots.com.
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