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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Putting Methane to Work

A coal miner’s hazard is emerging as a significant and commercially feasible source of clean energy. It is the methane gas in under­ground coalbeds which is historically associated with coal-mining explosions

Virtually equivalent to natural gas, methane can be used, like natural gas, for home heating and fuel­ing gas appliances.

UNTIL RECENTLY, the methane in coal mines has been wasted, swept out of mines by constant ventila­tion. As an imminent haz­ard to miners and an eco­nomic nuisance to coal operators who had to spend money to blow it into the outside, methane never fig­ured in our nation’s overall energy economy.

Not so anymore. There is excitement in some Penn­sylvania coal fields, at the U.S. Bureau of Mines, and among specialists associat­ed with Pennsylvania State University and Gov. Milton J. Shapp’s energy council.

The Bureau of Mines has ‘developed a promising tech­nique to collect commer­cially usable methane gas, not only from operating coal mines, but from coal beds in advance of mining.

As a result, a Pennsylva­nia State University mining engineering professor, Rob­ert Stefanko, estimates that there is enough methane gas in mineable coal beds in the U.S. to take care of all the country’s natural gas consumption (at present levels) for 12 years.

Prof. Stefanko’s esti­mates, conservatively calculated, come out to 260 trillion cubic feet of meth­ane gas. That is more ener­gy than the optimistic fore­casts for nuclear energy between 1970 and the year 2000, by way of comparing energy flows.

THE BUREAU of Mines’ specialist in what geologists call coal degasification, Maurice Deul, says that this methane supply is equal to what the oil compa­nies claim are the nation’s proved natural gas reserves.

With “a real strong ef­fort,” Deul believes that “within two years, we could be supplying 5 percent of our gas requirements” with methane from coal beds.

He pointed out, in an interview, that gas pipe­lines “crisscross the coal-producing areas of our country,” and this connect­ing technology makes the market use of methane more immediately realizable.

For over a year, the Bu­reau of Mines has been removing methane from coal beds in West Virginia and distributing, it through a commercial gas pipeline to market. In a more recent pilot project, the bureau is tapping for methane fuel gas in four coal beds out­side Pittsburgh, Pa.

According to the bureau’s tests, there is an estimated 330 billion cubic feet of methane (presently worth over 5175 million) in one coal bed under Greene County, Pa., and another 130 billion cubic feet (worth over S65 million) in an extension of the same coal bed under Washington County, Pa. If half of the Washington County meth­ane could be recovered, Deul says, there would be enough to heat 100,000 homes for 10 years.

THE DEGASIFICATION effort could become quite a success story. Removing methane in advance of min­ing makes the mines safer for the miners, reduces cer­tain costs for the mine operators; and supplements the nation’s energy supply with a clean flow of fuel.

The Bureau of Mines is expanding its research ef­fort to find more refined or new extractive techniques that are even more econom­ical than those presently available.

This effort should be given high visibility to en­sure that the public interest is the commanding priority in what is done.

How often in the past few years have consumers read about promising ways to meet energy needs only to find the initial announce­ment followed by high-pres­sure skepticism from the energy corporations and lit­tle governmental follow-up.

WHAT IS most profitable for the energy corporations may not coincide with what may still he a promising source of energy at a given time of need.

Interested readers may wish to obtain material about methane from coal-beds by writing to Public Information, Pennsylvania State University, 312 Old Main Bldg., University Park, Pa. 16802