By Brian Maffly
December 3, 2018 - The Centennial Mine, tucked in a scenic cleft under Utah’s Book Cliffs known as Deadman Canyon, once extracted bituminous coal from deep under the West Tavaputs Plateau, but the dangers of operating in methane-infused deposits 3,000 feet below the surface forced its owner to suspend operations.
That was more than 10 years ago, but the mine has yet to be closed. Equipment remains in place at its unsealed portals and the mine continues to vent methane through several bore holes.
Since discovering leaks from three of these wells earlier this year, state regulators have ordered the mine’s owner UtahAmerican Energy Inc. to plug and reclaim 10 holes, known as “gob vents,” because they tap leases the company has either relinquished or mined out.
Utah's Centennial Mine
Photo by Brian Maffly, The Salt Lake Tribune
While UtahAmerican promptly fixed the leaky wells, which regulators deemed an “imminent public danger,” it has resisted plugging wells, arguing they are needed to support future mining should the company decide to resume operations there, 10 miles northeast of Price. It also argued the leaky wells posed a low risk of ignition and are in a remote place where people rarely venture.
The firm’s resistance has resulted in a standoff with the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, or DOGM, which contends these wells serve no valid purpose associated with UtahAmerican’s coal-mining permit. In response, UtahAmerican, formerly known as Andalex Resources, is asking the Oil, Gas and Mining board to toss the division’s plugging order.
According to Dana Dean, DOGM’s associate director overseeing the coal program, regulators are negotiating a resolution that could enable the company to keep the wells open until Aug. 1, allowing a third party to set up equipment for capturing the valuable gas to make it commercially available.
UtahAmerican’s depleted West Ridge Mine near Price is also venting methane while an outside company is seeking authority to flare this gas as part of a carbon-offset deal.
These cases show how inactive coal mines can continue threatening the environment indefinitely. Many such mines have been idled in the face of plummeting domestic demand for the fossil fuel most associated with climate change — yet remain unreclaimed.
Dean suspects the Centennial Mine will never be able to profitably produce coal again and would like to see it retired, but law allows the mine operator wide latitude.
“A mine can go in temporary cessation at any time. As long as they have a valid lease on coal they could mine,” Dean said, “they can remain in cessation forever as long as they maintain the surface facilities.”
Some industry critics argue coal companies use such loopholes to evade costly reclamation obligations, although no one is publicly making that assertion against Centennial’s operators.
UtahAmerican’s lawyer, Denise Dragoo, declined to comment while the dispute remains active. In filings with DOGM, she contends the venting wells are part of Centennial’s approved mine plan. They should remain unplugged, she argued, as long as there is methane to vent from coal deposits that the company could resume mining.
The nation’s deepest longwall coal operation, Centennial is a consolidation of the once-busy Pinnacle and Aberdeen mines, which yielded about 4 million tons in 2006. Mining began there in 1980 and switched to longwall operations in 1994. The mine taps both federal and private minerals, while the surface acreage is private. Mining conditions were so tricky that the Bureau of Land Management regularly granted royalty reductions from the standard 8 percent to 5 percent, saving UtahAmerican several million dollars.
The company also owns the idled West Ridge and Crandall Canyon mines and active Lila Canyon mine, all near Price. The firm’s controversial parent company, Murray Energy Corp., came under fire in the wake of the 2007 collapse that killed six miners and three rescuers at Crandall Canyon. At the time, Murray was racking up violations of safety standards at the Aberdeen mine, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
On March 8, 1924, explosions tore apart the Castle Gate coal mine, killing all 171 miners inside. Many of them are buried in the Castle Gate Cemetery near Helper. Methane concentrations are a serious mining hazard for the coal mines in Utah’s Book Cliffs.
Photo by Brian Maffly, The Salt Lake Tribune
The BLM has weighed in on the more recent dispute over methane venting with a letter advising state regulators that it considers wells “in trespass” if they penetrate deposits that UtahAmerican has relinquished. A phone message left with the agency was not returned Friday.
Book Cliffs coal mines are notoriously “gassy,” meaning their hydrocarbon deposits are rich in methane, an explosive gas that can make mining in these parts hazardous. Methane-triggered explosions killed many if not most of the 1,400 men and boys who have perished in Carbon County mines through the years.
Many of the graves in the Castle Gate Cemetery are marked by uniform white crosses formed by a vertical piece of rebar and a cross piece labeled with the date of Utah’s second-worst mining disaster. Explosions ripped through the Castle Gate No. 2 mine on March 8, 1924, killing all 171 miners inside, most of them family men because the unmarried miners had been laid off a few weeks before.
Besides being highly flammable, methane is an air pollutant and greenhouse gas, packing more than 20 times the heat-trapping potential as carbon dioxide.
Because removing methane is critical to worker safety, there are no regulations against releasing the gas from mines into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, methane emissions from oil and gas operations are heavily regulated, although the Trump administration has rolled back recently tightened rules. Were Centennial an oil field, state rules would mandate that the methane be measured and flared.
To mitigate the methane hazard, coal mine operators drill wells to spots where the gas collects, typically just above a mined seam that has collapsed, what industry calls “gobs,” hence the term gob vent holes.
UtahAmerican has contracted with a firm called Liberty Pioneer Energy Source headquartered in Orem, to collect methane from the holes bored into the Centennial Mine. In an added twist to the venting dispute, the coal company contends the land’s surface owners, the Cave and Critchlow families of Price, control the methane, even though the BLM owns the minerals under their land.
“So long as methane is being vented from the mine, BLM cannot lease that methane to another party, and BLM is in no position to complain if [UtahAmerican’s] contractor, Liberty Pioneer, captures it, rather than letting it vent into the atmosphere,” Dragoo wrote in a Sept. 11 letter to Dean.
Dean contends the federal government owns the gas, particularly since UtahAmerican has relinquished its coal leases under the disputed wells. The BLM’s correspondence in the matter appears to back her interpretation, but it remains unclear whom, if anyone, Liberty should pay for the gas it would sell.