Thursday, September 18, 2008

EPA sees potential in deadly coal mine methane

Just after 9:00 on the morning of September 4, an ominous rumble echoed through the hills of China’s Liaoning province. For the residents of the bustling city of Fuxin, it was an all-too familiar sound. This latest in a series of lethal mining catastrophes claimed 24 lives, injured 6, and trapped 3, reinforcing China’s notorious reputation in the hazardous coal mining industry. With an average of 13 deaths a day, China’s mines are considered the most dangerous in the world.

While the cause of the Fuxin tragedy is still under investigation, officials suspect coalbed methane as a possible cause. The mining process inevitably frees this colorless, odorless gas from the pores of coal beds where it naturally occurs. Methane is both highly flammable and an asphyxiant, threatening miners with explosion as well as suffocation.

But some scientists see potential for good in this volatile killer. Although methane is deadly if not monitored carefully, it is also the principle component of natural gas, a powerful source of energy and a relatively clean-burning fossil fuel.

The Methane to Markets Partnership, a new program sponsored by the EPA, hopes to encourage an international effort to capture coal mine methane, or CMM, and harness its energy for good. CMM accounts for about 8% of global methane production. Because methane is a potent greenhouse gas – 20 to 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide – preventing this gas from leaking into the atmosphere would mitigate global warming as well as provide a cleaner source of energy.

If all goes as planned, Methane to Markets’ three preliminary target sites in China could yield as much as 72,000 metric tons of methane this year alone. The partnership hopes to get its 27 member countries and 750 member organizations harnessing coalbed methane in the near future.

“The Methane to Markets Partnership is an action-oriented initiative that will reduce global methane emissions to enhance economic growth, promote energy security, improve the environment, and reduce greenhouse gases,” touts the EPA. “Other benefits include improving mine safety, reducing waste, and improving local air quality.”

And although it can’t be quantified with science or statistics, the mourning families in Fuxin know that there is another benefit that will be even greater.

by Sadie Kneidel

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