Concerns over large amounts of methane being released into the air from abandoned Colorado coal mines led Pitkin County officials and others to Coal Basin near Redstone last week to get a better understanding of the environmental issue.

The defunct Coal Basin mine complex is releasing 1.3 million cubic feet of methane daily — the annual equivalent of 41% to 143% of the greenhouse gas emissions of all human activity in Pitkin County, according to a memorandum to commissioners from Zachary Hendrix, climate action manager and long-range planner for the county. Commissioners and other members of the stakeholder group conducted the site visit on Thursday following a discussion of proposed “fugitive methane capture” projects during a Tuesday work session.

The memo explains that capturing and destroying the methane from abandoned mines can greatly reduce their greenhouse-gas impacts. However, there is no federal regulatory framework for the capture-and-destroy process.

“Current regulations require such projects to be classified as an oil and gas lease, necessitating drilling plans and prohibiting the classification of methane as waste, therefore prohibiting its destruction,” the memo says.

Commissioner Greg Poschman said a letter is being crafted to convey to the Secretary of Interior the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners’ support for the federal creation of a framework for methane capture. He said methane can be flared off or captured and used for energy production.

Colorado contains 1,573 abandoned coal mines, of which 15 are in Pitkin County.

“Implementing fugitive methane capture and destruction at the mines in Pitkin County has the potential to offset 100% to 200% of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity and substantially reduce the county’s climate impacts,” the memo states. “Capturing and destroying fugitive methane at all the abandoned coal mines in Colorado has the potential, at a minimum, to annually offset all of the annual greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s transportation sector.”

Poschman and Commissioner Steve Child completed the 9-mile round-trip walk to the Coal Basin mine site on Thursday. Commissioner Francie Jacober attended the introductory meeting prior to the actual site visit, and Pitkin County Public Works Director Brian Pettet also participated.

In addition to Pitkin County, the stakeholder group includes Holy Cross Energy, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and Delta Brick and Climate Solution, a company whose founder, Chris Caskey, is a recognized expert on the effects of methane release and potential solutions.

Poschman said that while abandoned mines are prevalent throughout the Western Slope, the Coal Basin complex is a potential location for a “pilot project” for methane gas destruction on a wider scale.

“It’s all exploratory at this point,” he said.

Mining in the Coal Basin got started in the late 19th century through the efforts of industrialist John C. Osgood. He established Redstone as a company town with housing and amenities considered to be far superior to living conditions in typical mining communities at the time. Coal in the area was sent to ovens near Redstone to be refined into coke. Osgood’s operations and social initiatives were later beset by problems related to competition, worker strikes and economic downturns.

Over the course of decades, the Coal Basin mines closed and opened and closed again at different times. An explosion at the Dutch Creek mine claimed the lives of 15 miners in April 1981, when the complex was operated by Mid-Continent Coal and Coke Co. of Chicago.

The mine complex was shut down for good in 1991 and its portals were sealed to prevent the public from entering the vast system of tunnels. However, it was not mitigated to the point of preventing methane from escaping into the atmosphere, Poschman added.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.