Several years ago geologist Brad Boyce was drilling for coal-bed methane in east-central Utah, near the coal-mining town of Price. An outdoorsman by inclination, he makes his living finding, but also helping develop, oil and gas deposits.
What he and his company, Oso Oil and Gas, found was the Aberdeen, one of the deepest coal mines in the United States, and a major source for emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas.
Partly using money from Aspen and Pitkin County, that methane is now being trapped, instead of being vented into the atmosphere. After removal of impurities, it is compressed and put into a natural gas pipeline, for eventual use in heating homes and producing electricity.
It is the first large-scale capture of methane from a coal mine west of the Mississippi River, U.S. government and business officials say. The mine is projected to continue operations 15 to 20 years. As methane is among the most potent of greenhouse gases, the value to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is equivalent to operations of a $300 million wind farm.
“I think it is a real compelling story, in that you have this gas that was just going into the atmosphere, a clean source of energy that is just being wasted,” said Pamela Franklin, team leader for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s coal-bed methane outreach program.
Franklin said that 10 billion cubic feet of methane are simply vented into the atmosphere by coal mines, landfills, and other sources.
Methane is 21 times more potent than the most common greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, in its ability to absorb heat. But the gas has a chemical life in the atmosphere of only nine to 15 years. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for 100 to 200 years.
The Aberdeen Mine, one of the deepest coal mines in the United States, is also one of the largest emitters of methane, in the top 20, according to the EPA inventory.
The case also illustrates the mechanics of the emerging market for the reduction of greenhouse gases. The Aberdeen capture project is driven primarily by the sale of natural gas, but also the desire of Aspen — and possibly others — to pare back greenhouse gases, and who are willing to buy credits to help do so.
Aspen’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency provided $100,000 for the Aberdeen Mine program, representing the first four months of carbon offsets, and the city of Aspen, through its Canary Initiative, provided another $100,000.
“A project like this would not make economic sense without being able to monetize the carbon offsets,” Boyce said. “Having CORE and the city of Aspen be our first purchaser is wonderful.”
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