Navajo students to study methane at Navajo Mine

Three Navajo Technical University and two Diné College students will collect, analyze and interpret data to identify fugitive methane at or near Navajo Mine

James Fenton
A drag line operates in March at the Dixon Pit at Navajo Mine in Fruitland.

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation energy company that oversees a Fruitland coal mine plans to assess the mine's possible role in atmospheric methane in the region.

In May, Navajo Transitional Energy Company signed a memorandum of understanding with Carbondale, Colo.-based Koveva Ltd. to study fugitive methane releases on or near the mine.

NTEC spokesman Erny Zah said in a phone interview that the study is an example of the tribal enterprise's "push toward cleaner energy."

"We just see it as important to really understand our role with fugitive methane in the San Juan Basin," Zah said.

Part of the study will examine the potential to capture vented methane at or near the mine for energy uses, Zah said.

The study will run through the end of the year, concluding in January 2017.

Three Navajo Technical University and two Diné College students will take part in the study, according to Koveva CEO Taku Ide.

The students will collect, analyze and interpret data during the study with the goal of identifying and quantifying any fugitive methane at or near the mine.

"We want to teach the students everything we (Koveva) has learned from our previous work on fugitive methane-related projects, such that they can be empowered with understanding their own environment and energy assets," Ide said in an email.

Zah agreed.

"The goal is to have these students have ownership in the study and to the land and to the relationship there within," Zah said.

Operations continue in March at the Dixon Pit at the Navajo Mine in Fruitland.

Funding for the study will be provided by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, which is based in Los Altos, Calif. The foundation "works with partners around the world for social, cultural, and environmental change designed to improve the lives of children, families and communities," according to its website.

Ide said in an email that the cost of the study is not yet available.

"We cannot specify directly at this point in time," Ide said. "We have not obtained permission from the Packard Foundation to freely disclose the amount."

NTEC CEO Clark Moseley said in a press release that having a deeper understanding of the mine's contribution to regional atmospheric methane will be helpful.

"We are excited about this new partnership with Koveva that will help (NTEC) understand the role fugitive methane has on and near Navajo Mine," Moseley said. "We will have some answers to our role in the ongoing debate regarding fugitive methane in our area."

NTEC's and Koveva’s work will determine whether methane is escaping into the atmosphere on or near Navajo Mine, and if so, whether it can be captured economically to benefit nearby communities and potentially be used as an energy resource.

A 2014 report by NASA and the University of Michigan using European satellite imagery captured between 2003 and 2009 showed a large "hot spot" of atmospheric methane over the Four Corners. After that discovery, scientists started a project to better define the cloud's sources.

Ide said the Navajo Mine study will complement the NASA report by identifying sources of coal mine methane, while also adding to the report by potentially identifying ways to harness energy from methane sources at the mine.

"I think the NASA methane study helped make the argument that a detailed study of the area was necessary," Ide said in a follow-up email.

Located on tribal land, Navajo Mine is the sole supplier of coal to the Four Corners Power Plant, which is majority-owned by Arizona Public Service Co. It has provided subbituminous coal to the power plant for 50 years.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.