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The Daily Times toured the San Juan Generating Station. Here's a look inside the coal-fired power plant at the center of the state's energy debate. Sam Ribakoff, Farmington Daily Times

Southern Ute Indian Tribe energy director talks about the tribe's efforts to reduce naturally-occurring methane emissions

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DURANGO, COLORADO — Enchant Energy CEO Jason Selch told members of the Four Corners Air Quality Group that carbon capture technology could reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the San Juan Generating Station by six million tons each year.

Selch was one of about a dozen people who spoke during this year’s meeting on Oct. 23 at the Durango Public Library in Colorado.

In addition to providing background information about the project, Selch introduce Enchant Energy’s new chief operating officer, Peter Mandelstam, who will be moving to New Mexico. He has extensive experience in renewable energy, including offshore wind energy as well as solar power.

Selch said Enchant Energy is moving forward with its plans to install carbon capture on the power plant, including contracting for a transmission study that will look at the ability to move the electricity out of the Four Corners region.

More: Study touts affordability of carbon capture technology at San Juan Generating Station

But not everyone shares Selch's optimism about the proposal for carbon capture technology. La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt expressed skepticism with the plan when she spoke later that day.

“I guess I was a little puzzled by the presentation this morning about carbon captures and the role of it in particular,” she said. “And I really hope that we’re not all hanging our hat on an effort to reduce emissions starting in 2023 on a rather unproven technology that’s going to take more water and more power to operate.”

More: Is carbon capture the solution for San Juan Generating Station?

Carbon capture technology is a developing technology

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Enchant Energy wants to install carbon capture on San Juan Generating Station. Here's how the technology works. Hannah Grover, hgrover@daily-times.com

“I think that this project is getting a lot of attention nationally because carbon capture is a technology that is generally agreed to be a necessary technology to implement in order to address climate change,” Selch said during his presentation. “And as we develop technology it is very important to have installations.”

The San Juan Generating Station would be the third utility-scale coal-fired power plant to have carbon capture installed. Selch said entities interested in developing the technology have offered support to Enchant Energy.

More: Carbon capture technology, SJGS's future discussed at energy conference

“San Juan Generating Station, right here in our backyard, is about the best site for this technology, the next iteration of this technology,” Selch said.

He said there are two reasons for that advantage — the pollution controls on the power plant and its proximity to the Cortez pipeline, which would transport the carbon dioxide to the Permian Basin for use in oil extraction.

He said Boundary Dam Power Plant in Canada has struggled with nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides degrading the amine that is used to extract carbon dioxide. This has reduced the amount of carbon that is removed at Boundary Dam, Selch said. An amine is a substance that binds to the carbon dioxide.

More: Farmington amends San Juan Generating Station letter of intent

Enchant Energy is not solely interested in selling to the oil fields, though. Selch mentioned other uses of carbon dioxide, such as the production of soft drinks. He said there is also a possibility of drilling a well in New Mexico where carbon dioxide could be injected into the ground for permanent storage without being used to produce oil.

“It also is positioning the community to be a leader in the technology that is going to have increasing applications,” Selch said. He said he anticipates more and more plants will use the technology in the upcoming decades.

More: Farmington, Enchant Energy one step closer to keeping San Juan Generating Station open

Selch said the power generated by the San Juan Generating Station will be used to back up the increasing renewable energy on the electric grid. 

Other meeting topics included natural methane emissions

In the 1930s, an explosion at a mountain in the Durango area lead to a large landslide and, for a while, the location was marketed as a tourist attraction. This explosion, according to Mike Matheson, energy manager for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, was caused by methane seeping out of the ground in an area where the Fruitland coal outcrops.

He said this was before natural gas production from the Fruitland formation and this seepage of methane is naturally occurring. However, since coal bed methane production began, the venting has increased starting in the 1980s.

For the last couple of decades, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe has been using a pilot program of wells to pull the natural gas, which is mostly methane, out of the formation before it can vent into the atmosphere. Those wells were shut in earlier this year due to age and because of low natural gas prices.

The impacts of this seepage includes underground fires that are expensive to extinguish, risk of explosion and death of vegetation near the seeps. There is also hydrogen sulfide produced by bacteria near the outcrop that eats the methane and secretes hydrogen sulfide.

Matheson said 25 million cubic feet of methane was seeping from the formation each day in 2015 just on the Southern Ute reservation.

“That’s a lot of gas,” he said. “If you had that much gas in a gas plant that was leaking or being vented, everybody would know about it.”

The amount of gas seeping from the formation began to increase in 2013. In 2010, the formation was leaking 1.25 million cubic feet per day.

It has decreased since 2015 and, in 2017, about 12 million cubic feet of methane vented into the atmosphere each day. However, Matheson said the formation is still emitting more methane that it has in the past.

Since the tribe began capturing methane until it shut in the wells this summer, Matheson estimates it captured 435,000 metric tons of methane. He said that is equivalent to the emissions from 81,000 passenger vehicles, or 41,000 homes.

But the tribe has lost money on the project and is now looking for other ways to address these naturally occurring emissions. Some of the ideas include drilling horizontal wells along the formation and implementing carbon capture technology.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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