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