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Cleaning up the Coal Mine Industry: Coal Mine Methane

Boyd Cohen | Monday February 28th, 2011 | 1 Comment

Boyd Cohen, CO2 IMPACT

Last week in this column I wrote about a real “clean coal” solution, torrefied wood.  While I truly believe torrefied wood holds significant potential to assist in phasing out coal burning in power plants, coal is here to stay for a while, whether we like it or not.

Surely there are many environmentalists who see me as a traitor for wanting to work with the coal industry to reduce their emissions, but as a climate capitalist and a concerned global citizen I believe it is my responsibility to do my part to reduce the industry’s impact.

While most of you have heard about coal mine explosions, surprisingly few understand why this happens.  Underground coal formations have a tendency to be associated with significant amount of methane gas.  Besides methane being a very potent greenhouse gas (approximately 21 times the global warming potential of CO2), it also is the cause of mining explosions and associated fatalities.

As I write this blog post I am literally on a plane (yes I know some of you find that hypocritical but I’ll defend myself and other climate capitalists for our travel impacts in another column), on my way to lead a workshop for the coal mine industry in Columbia with invited partners from the U.S. EPA, technology and solutions providers, local government regulators and of course the industry.  (Side note: I was pleasantly surprised to find when I boarded this Continental flight from Houston to Bogota that it is the actual plane that was used by Continental in its first ever test flight using biofuels. (I wrote about this test flight in a prior post).

Colombia is by far the largest producer and exporter of coal in all of Latin America, yet it remains in the dark ages with respect to managing methane gas.

Have you ever heard the expression canary in a coal mine?  That comes from the antiquated practice for underground coal mines to send canaries underground. If the canary sings there is not a lot of methane and if it dies, well then, some form of ventilation system must be needed.  Obviously modern techniques allow for a much more exact, and humane, approach to measuring methane gas in underground coal mines.  However, this canary practice is still used by some of the sector in Colombia.

This lack of rigor to addressing coal mine methane has led to high rates of explosions and miner deaths in Colombia.  Just in 2011, there have already been two reported explosions killing 21 miners and leading the President of Colombia, Santos to order a complete restructuring of the way the government regulates the industry.

The sad thing about the current status in Colombia’s coal mine sector is that the loss of life and costs associated with methane explosions could be avoided, and at a profit to the industry all the while reducing the sector’s impact on global warming.

This is the whole point of climate capitalism, looking for opportunities to profit from a transition to the low-carbon economy, and in this case, the benefits go all the way to saving lives.

There are at least 3 inter-related solutions to this problem.  The first is something called pre-drainage where horizontal and vertical wells are drilled to drain the methane out in advance of commencing the mining activities. Post-drainage is similar but conducted after a portion of the mine has been mined.  Finally there is something called VAM (ventilation air methane) where methane can also be abstracted as it leaves a mine’s ventilation system.  In all cases, this methane can be converted for heat and power on site or even in some cases converted to energy and sold to a nearby grid.  Not only that, but of course the methane avoidance can be monetized through carbon offsets.

How about that for a business case for climate capitalism-reduced GHG emissions, reduced risk of operational downtime, reduced energy costs and hopefully save lives?  Now hopefully you environmentalists out there at least understand why I am proud of the work my company is doing to clean up the coal mine industry.

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Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of the forthcoming book, Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

Twitter: boydcohen
This series will use the hashtag #climatcaptlsm


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  • Joming

    Hey Boyd,
    nice to hear what you’ve been up to…
    It is commendable the work that you do in lessening the impacts of this industry, but in some ways, what you are proposing should be the standard for baseline operations, in that it not only protects worker safety, but also helps recapture methane gas that can be use in cogeneration facilities

    I suppose one issue with helping to ‘clean up’ the coal industry is that in some sense, it does reduce the urgency for change… as in the coal companies (AND the general public) have the feeling that because these companies have been reducing their emissions, and lessening their impact, there is less urgency to switch to more sustainable sources of energy.

    I also have an issue with the idea of monetization of the methane capture/avoidance through carbon offsets. It seems that these companies are in way saying that ‘look at this good thing we’re doing’, despite the fact that there are significant issues with coal mines, both environmentally, socially, as well as in terms of climate change impacts, both at the mine through methane, and throughout the life cycle of the extracted coal, as it is then burned for energy, producing GHG emissions.