Up to now, the gases released when mining for coal were mainly regarded as a safety hazard to coal miners. Methane build-up has led to fatal explosions in coal mines, like the one that killed 29 in a Massey-owned West Virginia mine in April and last week's in Colombia, which has killed at least 34.
Keeping gases like methane at levels that that do not pose a risk to miners has always been and is "safety issue number one", says Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians, one of the organizations backing the petition, but he would like to see regulations limiting the risk those gases pose once they are out of the mine as well.
Methane, which is combustible, is a byproduct of the process by which coal solidifies. It accumulates over time in pockets of the surrounding rock and is released when those pockets are opened through mining. In order to maintain safe conditions, the methane must be pumped out of the mine, and it is this spewing of methane – a powerful greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere that concerns the environmental groups.
Plus, adds Nichols, methane is a natural gas that – if captured – can be sold to power anything from stoves to vehicles.
"We're saying to ourselves, 'Well, wait a minute, not only is this a potent greenhouse gas, this is a valuable product," he said. "It really seems like there's a no-brainer here. But the mining companies are good at coal mining; they're not good at capturing natural gas...and are willing to just blow it into the air"
The petition also targets coal mine emissions of particulate matter, nitrogen oxide gases and volatile organic compounds.
Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, feels the problem is overstated by the petitioning groups. He maintains that rules to regulate methane as an environmental hazard are "currently under consideration" and that standards for the other gases emitted by mining equipment or certain types of mines are sufficient.
"In short, the likely compliance costs are in no way commensurate with any environmental benefit not already captured," Popovich said. "We view this petition to be unnecessary."
But Nichols said the ultimate goal would be to bring a "consistent application of emissions standards" to mining operations. Right now, he said "It's basically state by state. Some states do a little more. Some states don't do anything. And in the meantime we're seeing some severe problems."
Methane is just one of those problems, but also likely one of the easiest to do something about.
The EPA itself has pointed out that methane is second only to carbon dioxide in the mix of greenhouse gases emitted globally. It is also 21 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. EPA calculates that the "global atmospheric concentration of methane has increased by 149 percent (p. 66517) since pre-industrial levels (through 2007)."
"Methane is one of the greenhouse gases that really warrants more attention and more targeting. Because it is short-lived and because it's so potent you can get good and quick reductions in greenhouse gases if you can limit the methane," said Ted Zukowski, a Denver-based attorney at Earthjustice.
Based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's calculations, the EPA estimates (p. 66517, note 18) that methane persists in the atmosphere for about 10 years, while carbon dioxide persists for, on average, roughly 100 years.
Coal Mines Account for 10% of Methane Emissions
The EPA also estimates half of methane emissions can be traced to human activities. Coal mining came in fourth on that list of anthropogenic sources of emissions in 2008. Abandoned underground coal mines, listed separately, came in eleventh. The petitioners calculate that the coal mining industry therefore accounts for more than 10 percent of total human-related methane emissions.
Zukowski admits it is not a huge amount of the total greenhouse gases out there.
"It's low-hanging fruit," he said. "There are a couple holes where huge amounts of methane are being sucked out of the ground and blown into the atmosphere, so if we can get a small number of corporations to capture and flare this stuff, you're going to get significant bang for the buck."
Flaring, by which the gas is burned off after being piped out, is one solution, and though Zukowski admits it would be "kind of a last resort" he says it should reduce greenhouse gas impacts by around 90 percent. He, like Nichols, also cited the option of processing the methane so that it can be sold as fuel.
"There are coal mine capture-and-use projects ongoing all over the world – in, I think, 50 countries – so it's do-able," he said.
Western Mines Lag Behind
Nichols also pointed out that many mines in the western U.S. have lagged behind some of their eastern counterparts, and it is those western mines that the groups had specifically in mind when filing the petition. He pointed to the mines of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and southeastern Montana, where strip mines create orange clouds of nitrogen dioxide gas.
"Right now, the solution that the coal mines have come up with is to post a warning sign up on the side of the highway saying "Avoid Contact." We just don't think that's a solution to protecting health and welfare," he said.
The groups hope their petition – to which they are asking the EPA to respond within 80 days – will prompt the agency to list coal mines as a source of harmful air pollution and to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to ensure mines take effective measures to reduce the emissions of these pollutants.
These, they say, are the standards that are in place for other facilities – such as coal-fired power plants and coal processing plants – but federal limits on air pollution from the mines that produce that coal still do not exist.
"This is certainly not a new regulatory regime. It's just that coal mines have slipped through the cracks so far and they shouldn't," said Zukowski.
Nichols explained that the EPA seems to be the only agency that is willing to take greenhouse gas emissions seriously. He said he was tired of waiting for the Department of the Interior or the mining companies to take action. "'We need an environmental agency to come in now," he said. "It's time to get the EPA more involved."
For its part, the EPA does have a voluntary methane emission reduction program in place for coal mines. The Coalbed Methane Outreach Program has "about 11 coal mine methane recovery and utilization projects at about 15 active underground coal mines, and about 20 projects recovering methane from about 30 abandoned underground coal mines," the agency says. They say these efforts have removed the equivalent of more than 216 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere between 1994 and 2006.
But the environmental groups want a more standardized and mandatory approach.
The EPA declined to comment, saying they would "review and respond to the petition appropriately."