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Coal and its Byproducts: How The History Of Our County May Yet Provide A More Promising Future

by William J. Bechaver

HUERFANO- Historically, there has been little gas and oil production in our area. As everyone knows, our history was founded on coal and coal production.  Without the coal industry in the earliest parts of the last century, it is doubtful whether Walsenburg would even exist today.

    In those days, one of the things most dreaded by the miners was the presence of methane gas in the coal mine.  Back then, methane merely made mining more dangerous, resulting in death by suffocation or in many cases, multiple deaths by explosion and the resulting mine shaft collapse.

    Now in the 21st century, that invisible gas that was the bane of many a miner may prove to hold the key to the future of our area.

    In this part of the country, coal is found in seams, which often run deep underground, and are often narrow or shallow, sometimes as little as a couple of feet.  Hence, slope mining, which uses a descending mine shaft, was common and extremely profitable for a long time in this area. Strip-mining has proven to be less practical in more recent years.  Within the coal seams and the accompanying geologic formations, two gasses are always present, often in abundant quantities.  The first and most dangerous, is methane.  The second is carbon dioxide.


    Coal production was at its peak in Huerfano County from the turn of last century until about the mid-1930s.  Mines were tunneled between the sandstone layers to a depth of up to 600 feet, and honeycombed through vast areas underground.  By the late-1950s, the coal market was waning, and with its decline, the coal mines quickly disappeared from southern Colorado.

    It wasn’t until years later that a use was found for the gases that accompany the underground coal deposits.

    The first commercial gas field in the area was established by Atlantic-Richfield Oil and Gas and Exxon in the early 1980s, to utilize carbon dioxide (CO2).  By 1983, the two energy giants had drilled 28 wells directly under Sheep Mountain near Gardner, and had connected the operation to a 20 inch pipeline that stretches 408 miles to Denver City, Texas.  There, the gas is used for enhanced oil recovery.  The carbon dioxide that is claimed from the sandstone in this area is over 96% pure. Production hit its peak in 1988.


    The Sheep Mountain drilling field had produced 2.1 trillion cubic feet of carbon dioxide by 2002, and during its period of operation has been the single most productive source of tax revenue in Huerfano County.

    In recent years, this area has been experiencing a new boom in drilling operations for coal-bed methane. In the past decade, many exploration wells have been drilled in Huerfano County.  An ongoing problem for these drilling operations is the influx of water into the drilling area, resulting in a high volume of water being produced from these wells. This byproduct of excess water continues to hamper the production of methane from the wells in this area.


    Another problem is the aforementioned carbon dioxide, another byproduct of the methane wells.

    Only about 25% of the gas produced by the drilling is methane.  The rest is primarily carbon dioxide.  At the present time, this carbon dioxide is disbursed into the atmosphere, unused. This gas could be reclaimed, but a major oil company has so far failed to open a new pipeline, which would ship the carbon dioxide to West Texas.  There it would be buried to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses.         This process of carbon dioxide sequestration may be able to find a home right here in our county in the future.  Though it sounds futuristically complex, it is a relatively simple process. In this process, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gasses, are actually recaptured from the atmosphere, and then injected deep into the bedrock, usually in areas of abandoned oil drilling or underground mining.  This fledgling technology promises to be a multi-billion dollar industry in the future, and in an area with a mining history, ours could turn out to be a prime candidate for just such a process.

    This could all be part of a greater energy cycle.

    A century ago, we were producing vast amounts of coal.  In turn, the burning of that coal as fuel released vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

    Later, we were recovering carbon dioxide from the coal layers, to assist in the extraction of oil from wells. The combustion of that oil also released great amounts of carbon dioxide.

    Now, in the final link to the chain, we may be reclaiming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and returning it to the coal-beds from whence it came, restoring the planet to its former state, reducing greenhouse emissions, and resolving problems that were inadvertently initiated many generations before us.