A pioneer turns a potent greenhouse gas into our atmospheric ally

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A shifted career path put Tom Vessels at the forefront of addressing the monstrous challenge of methane. Photo by Allen Best.

Tom Vessels was eulogized last Friday afternoon at the Pavilion at Denver’s City Park. As sunshine streamed in the windows, stories were told about his thirst for adventure, his backpacking trips, his devotion to family, even a ribald tale about something he said at a beer festival.

Only the briefest allusion was made to what may have been Vessels’ remarkable turn in life. He had followed his father into the business of natural gas. His father had drilled the pioneer bore in the Wattenberg field in the early1970s.

But Tom Vessels at some point chose a new path. He wanted to capture methane, the primary constituent in natural gas, as it escaped from coal mines.

Colorado has hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of old coal mines. Scores can be found in the foothills north and west of Trinidad. Others remain at Louisville, Lafayette and Erie, and more yet at Dacono, Firestone and Frederick. All were dangerous in their day because the methane emissions associated with coal along with coal dust could, with just the right spark, produce an explosion, maiming and killing men by the scores, sometimes the hundreds.

But coal mines on the eastern haunches of the Grand Mesa were in a different class of gassy. It was to these working mines in the North Fork Valley near Paonia that Vessels turned his attention. Instead of letting the methane escape into the atmosphere, he thought, it should be collected and burned to create electricity.

Burning methane produces carbon dioxide, but methane has 84 to 86 times the heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide. This short-term potency matters in a world that feels like a whistling tea kettle. Colorado’s temperatures this summer were the fourth hottest on record. They were the second hottest in Western Colorado. Steamboat Springs had 21 days above 90 degrees, compared to an average six days in the previous 30 years.

Vessels chose the Elk Creek Mine, because it was then a working mine, which produces more methane than inactivemines. Because of the investment in infrastructure, the electricity couldn’t compete directly in the wholesale market when Vessels began his investigation early in this century. He needed partners.

A crucial partner was the Aspen Skiing Co. In the early 2000s, the company had been making noise about environmental goals. To back up its words with action, the company agreed to pay a premium price for enough methane-produced electricity to operate its four ski areas and the complementary businesses. That gave Holy Cross Energy, the electrical supplier for Aspen and Snowmass, a reason to get involved.

The project pairing gets even more interesting. The Elk Creek Mine, after all, was owned by Bill Koch, of the famous Kansas family (he was not on speaking terms with his more famous brothers), and it’s fair to think that global warming was not a worry of his business world. But there was money to be made, and Koch and his mine manager were happy to make it.

Later came California money. The methane-reduction enterprise at West Elk qualified for funding under California’s cap-and-trade program. After all, reducing methane in Colorado benefits California.

Auden Schendler, the firebrand at the Aspen Skiing Co., wrote a remembrance to the company’s sustainability team after Vessels died of melanoma on Sept. 10:

Tom was the vision and impetus behind our coal mine methane capture project, and he was the leading authority in the United States in that field. Looking a bit like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, and just as passionate about enabling his kind to thrive, Tom spoke in metaphor and analogy and neat turns-of-phrase that helped laypeople understand the intricacies of coal mines and methane,climate change and necessary policy reform. “Think of it as water that runs uphill,” he’d say, or, “We have to plug the jug.”

An oil and gas man by trade and training, but a scientist at heart, Tom didn’t worry much about climate change in the first part of his life—he thought volcanoes emitted more CO2—until he heard a scientist speak on the subject. And he thought: “Well then, we’ve got a problem.”

From that point on, Tom, often shaking his head at the failure of government and even environmental groups to understand the dire threat methane posed, became the leading on-the-ground crusader in the U.S. to capture and destroy the potent greenhouse gas.

Tom was a businessman too, and he saw methane as both an opportunity and a threat. Coming from the inside, he had a knack for befriending miners and gas people, “land men” and engineers, because he spoke their lingo and lived their lives.

In Denver, the service for Vessels was attended by 200 to 300 people, among them Rutt Bridges, who made a good living as a designer of software for hydrocarbon extraction before turning his attention to charting the life beyond fossil fuels in the transportation sector. One of his sons, Jeff Bridges, is a Colorado state senator.

Former Gov. Bill Ritter was also there. He was elected in 2004 in the same election that Colorado voters approved the nation’s first voter-initiated renewable portfolio standard. It required Xcel Energy to achieve 10% by 2015. Xcel famously blew past that requirement. It is now positioned to achieve 80% by 2030, and some Colorado utilities believe they can hit 90% or even 100%.

Chris Caskey, who is on the board of directors for Vessels Coal & Gas. Caskey, was there, too. He has a Ph.D. in applied chemistry from the Colorado School of Mines and is a free-spirited entrepreneur. He has already created a business in Montrose to create high-end ceramic tiles derived principally from the silt dredged from Paonia Reservoir.

Caskey has bigger ambitions yet. Working with the Aspen Skiing Co., Pitkin County and others, he is trying to figure out a way to harness the methane emissions from Dutch Creek No. 1, a former mine located 8 miles west of Redstone, the same way that Vessels did at Paonia.

Like those mines of the North Fork Valley, located 10 to 15 miles away as the crow flies, this mine was notoriously gassy. An explosion in 1964 killed nine men. State officials  at the time said  that Dutch Creek was the most gaseous coal mine in Colorado and the second gassiest in the nation. Another explosion in 1981 killed 15. Mining ceased in 1991.

By one estimate, the emissions from this one mine in terms of global warming potential surpass all others combined in Pitkin County, a long and skinny county that includes Aspen but also Dutch Creek No. 1. Think of the private jet planes lined up three-deep at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, the mansions and the daily unrelenting parade of cars, pickups and trucks in and out Aspen.

To corral those methane emissions looks to be a tall challenge for Caskey and others aligned with this mission of methane containment. In a way, Tom Vessels was a man ahead of his times in Colorado but also an important man of his times.

Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-journal about energy, water and other major transitions underway in Colorado and beyond. Seebigpivots.com.

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