P.S. You gotta love someone quoting Voltaire in an article about Colorado coal mines!
The merits of methane harvesting
A proposal before the Senate seems like a no-brainer, but environmental groups are inexplicably against it.
Posted: 03/18/2012 01:00:00 AM MDT
By Allen Best
The French philosopher Voltaire in the 1700s warned against letting the better, or perfect, be the enemy of the good. That advice would seem to apply to an attempt by environmental groups in Colorado to block a market mechanism that could yield immediate reductions in emissions of a powerful greenhouse gas.
The proposal going before the Colorado Senate this week is whether to expand the state’s renewable portfolio standard to include electricity generated by burning methane emissions being vented from coal mines, both active and abandoned. The current legislation already allows electricity produced by burning methane emitted by landfills.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. The Environmental Protection Agency says the heat-trapping properties of methane are 21 times greater than that of carbon dioxide, the more common greenhouse gas. That means generating just minor amounts of electricity from coal-mine emissions could substantially reduce Colorado’s emissions of greenhouse gases.
Energy analyst Randy Udall, who has been working the numbers of coal-mine methane for a decade, calculates just 5 megawatts of electricity generated from coal-mine methane emissions, at a capital cost of $10 million, would offset more carbon than all the solar so far installed in Colorado as of 2010, which has cost roughly $700 million. Total methane harvesting from coal mines near Paonia could produce 20 megawatts, using fairly simple technology, say advocates, and, with more challenge, up to 50 megawatts.
That’s an important point to digest. In terms of reducing the risk to our climate during the next century, just a few megawatts planned at the West Elk Mine could have as much impact as all the solar panels erected on rooftops at DIA and everywhere else in Colorado so far. As Udall puts it, renewable energy is the means, not the end unto itself. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
This bill’s politics has the bewildering aspects of a Mobius strip. Introduced by one of the most conservative members of the legislature, Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, House Bill 1160 passed the House by a 34-29 vote. Only Rep. Wes McKinley, the self-described cowboy from southeast Colorado (that’s what it says on the legislature’s website), bucked fellow Democrats to join Republicans, who were unanimous in support.
Now, in the Senate, it is sponsored by Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, whose base includes some of the most diligent global warming warriors in the state.
Udall has to be considered one of those warriors, and it’s a further irony that he is aligned in this case with Bill Koch, owner of the nearby Elk Creek Mine and a member of the family that has been stirring the undertow of opposition to climate-change action. However, there’s no evidence that Koch has been involved in this case. <note Allen Best corrected this story to clarify that Koch is the owner of Elk Creek Mine and not the West Elk Mine>.
Are you confused? You’re not alone. Del Worley, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy, an electrical cooperative that provides electricity to the Aspen and Vail areas, says he’s baffled. “The politics are mind-boggling to me,” he says. “If you’re truly trying to stop global warming, this is one of the best bills out there. It’s not a giant resource, but why waste it? It should be a no-brainer.”
Regardless of whether HB 1160 passes, Worley’s co-op has agreed to buy 3 megawatts of electricity produced by burning coal-mine methane near Paonia. Like other co-ops in Colorado, Holy Cross is required to provide 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Holy Cross exceeded that mark last year. Now, directors have adopted an internal goal of 20 percent by 2015. Although terms have not been disclosed, they are apparently willing to pay a higher price to achieve that, both with a biomass plant proposed at Gypsum and with purchase of the methane-produced electricity.
Driving this bill is Tom Vessels, a Denver-based entrepreneur who now heads North Fork Energy. He was stirred to innovate by what he saw in Germany, where coal-mine emissions are harnessed to produce electricity. The same is true in Australia and China. But in the United States, almost nothing has happened, he says.
This is despite a 2004 EPA report that found active mines contributed 10 percent and abandoned mines 5 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. (This is from emissions of methane, not from burning coal).
While he is also tapping methane from an inactive mine in Pennsylvania, Vessels argues that Colorado can demonstrate how to tap the existing resource — and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
To make the numbers work, however, Vessels needs more customers than Holy Cross who are willing to pay a premium for electricity. He approached more than a dozen utilities. All rejected him — because they couldn’t count it toward their renewable portfolio standard mandate.
His other income stream would be carbon offsets, mostly generated by the California market.
Vessels charges that the existing renewable portfolio standard has now become the “business as usual” model. It’s thwarting innovation and stifling opportunity.
“It has been said that (renewable portfolio standards) were originally passed with the goal of supporting the new energy technologies of the legislature,” Vessels said. “The legislature a few years ago decided that solar and wind were the technologies of the future. But the Germans kept their eye on the ball and said, ‘If we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we do it by building up wind and solar — and these other things.’ I think here in Colorado we missed the ‘and other things.’ “
Among the powerful environmental groups opposing HB 1160 has been Western Resource Advocates. John Nielsen, the group’s energy program director, argues that the existing legislation is not well thought out. While the goal of reducing methane emissions is a worthy one, he says, it’s not clear the bill will actually achieve it — and might hinder better efforts in the future. “Are there better tools out there to get this done?” he asks.
But there’s another possibility that seems to bother Western Resource Advocates and other groups. If coal-mine emissions can be considered as renewable, he says, then does that mean that fugitive emissions of methane from natural gas drilling and pipeline transport can similarly be tapped someday to produce electricity under renewable portfolio standards?
Nielsen agrees that this tempest in Colorado can be considered a forerunner of a broader national debate about the clean-energy standard proposed by President Barack Obama in his 2011 State of the Union address. That debate will be about whether technology should be agnostic in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At its heart, the debate is whether we can realistically hope to completely eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels anytime soon. Most sober assessments have concluded that it will be impossible. That point is even more emphatic if the Chinese, Indians and Indonesians are brought into the conversation, as they absolutely must be.
Can we someday wean ourselves entirely off fossil fuels? Perhaps, but we’re going to have to live with coal for a few more decades, possibly longer. The current pushback by environmental groups and their Democratic allies smells of a litmus test of ideological purity. It confuses battles with the war.
If the war is against dangerous accumulations of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, this is a bill that should land on the desk of Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Allen Best, a journalist in Colorado for 35 years, publishes an e-zine called Mountain Town News.
Read more: The merits of methane harvesting – The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_20183852/merits-methane-harvesting#comments#ixzz1pVs0TxbS
Note: you may agree or disagree with the caption to this photo; I just copied it from a USGS science site (Central Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center) here.
My fire colleagues alerted me that posting of the our previous post here, with simply the introductory paragraph, could have led to the wrong impression of the current scientific thinking.
I think fire managers would like to know better how bark beetle killed or otherwise dead and dry
trees affect fire behavior. But I don;t think that historic vegetation ecology is going to tell folks that. It seems as if some people think that “science” can prove that fires are no different with dead trees, then we wouldn’t have to do fuel treatments. But that doesn’t make sense, since we still do fuel treatments with live trees. Is it about investing more in live tree fuels treatments?
Here is how I frame the question:
Should we, in the interior west, manage tree vegetation outside the WUI (assuming we have agreement in the WUI, some days I am not so sure) to provide possible fire lines, help in some way with suppression of large fires, or to protect other resources?
Framed that way, many more disciplines that fire behavior modeling or historic vegetation ecology might have something to say. Plus of course “should” is a normative (value), and not a science (empirical) question.
And let’s involve a couple of other disciplines right now: hydrologists and fish people don’t seem to be as sanguine about the effects of fire as some vegetation ecologists are; for example, this quote in the JFSP article (pg. 13).
Schnackenberg would like to see much more
operational burning on the Medicine Bow-Routt. “My
opinion as a hydrologist is, I would rather see all that
dead stuff burn right now. It’s standing, and if we wait
for it to fall there may be places where it will burn a
little hot, and you’ll get hydrophobic soils and erosion.
And if you have heavy fuel loads on the ground in 15
years and a fire comes, what happens to the hydrology
I do agree with the statement at the end of the JFSP piece:
That is a big “how.” And, as with most knotty
management problems, the science can guide, but it
cannot direct. Wildfires and bark beetles don’t lend
themselves to controlled studies, and the findings don’t
usually point to neat, out-of-the-box solutions.
More than that, even the most undisputed
ecological knowledge is inflected by political,
economic, and social considerations. A set of findings
like Simard’s, however accurate and useful in theory,
may or may not govern management response at the
level of stand, forest, or watershed. Any prescription
will also rely on other research and on-the-ground
experience, and any action will hinge on local
constraints and opportunities.
As JZ posted in his/her comments, I think this piece by Keeley in 2009 explains better why people seem to be partially confused just by the terminology.
In the same set of comments, Larry said:
Additionally, the fire folks don’t like to address the issues of re-burn, which often results in more actual damage than a fire burning in green lodgepole. The damages totaled up for fires burning in green trees often doesn’t include the probability of a re-burn. In dry forests, the remaining fuels from a fire just sit there, until the next inevitable fire incinerates everything in its path. Even fire-adapted species have their limits of fire survival.
I, too, have seen this; near Hells Canyon, burned area with jack-strawed dead lodgepole and lodgepole coming back through the dead trees, another burn of the jack-strawed dead, and the young lodgepole are toast, with few or no nearby seed trees.
But for those who just can’t help getting involved in the fires and bb’s debate, here is another paper that recently came out that specifically examines the areas of agreement and disagreement.
Here’s the abstract
Millions of trees killed by bark beetles in western North America have raised concerns about subsequent
wildfire, but studies have reported a range of conclusions, often seemingly contradictory, about effects on fuels and wildfire. In this study, we reviewed and synthesized the published literature on modifications to fuels and fire characteristics following beetle-caused tree mortality. We found 39 studies addressing this topic with a variety of methods including fuels measurements, fire behavior simulations, an experiment, and observations of fire occurrence, severity, or frequency. From these publications, we developed a conceptual framework describing expected changes of fuels and fire behavior. Some characteristics of fuels and fire are enhanced following outbreaks and others are unchanged or diminished, with time since outbreak a key factor influencing changes. We also quantified areas of higher and lower confidence in our framework based on the number of studies addressing a particular area as well as agreement among studies. The published literature agrees about responses in many conditions, including fuels measurements and changes in stands with longer times since outbreak, and so we assigned higher confidence to our conceptual framework for these conditions. Disagreement or gaps in knowledge exist in several conditions, particularly in early post outbreak phases and crown fire behavior responses, leading to low confidence in our framework in these areas and highlighting the need for future research. Our findings resolved some of the controversy about effects of bark beetles on fire through more specificity about time since outbreak and fuels or fire characteristic. Recognition of the type of study question was also important in resolving controversy: some publications assessed whether beetle-caused tree mortality caused differences relative to unattacked locations, whereas other publications assessed differences relative to other drivers of wildfire such as climate. However, some disagreement among studies remained. Given the large areas of recent bark beetle and wildfire disturbances and expected effects of climate change, land and fire managers need more confidence in key areas when making decisions about treatments to reduce future fire hazard and when fighting fires.
Here’s the paper. I do like the fact that they attempt to make sense out of the different studies and approaches, from a scientific point of view. But I am not so clear on the utility of any of it toward management or policy other than improving fire behavior models. Perhaps we could discuss this further here?