Mexico Pushes Law to Help Rid Mines of Toxic Gas
MEXICO CITY Mexican lawmakers have dusted off a long-buried bill to allow mining companies to extract and sell methane gas, potentially helping to avoid accidents like last month's deadly coal mine explosion.
The bill, resuscitated in December after an earlier version was shelved in 2003, was overwhelmingly approved by the energy committee in the lower house of deputies.
It will be put to the vote in the full house Thursday before passing to the Senate upper house for approval, said Fluvio Ruiz, an advisor to the lower house energy committee.
Many expect it to pass smoothly into law after 65 miners died in a coal mine blast in northern Mexico last month after methane concentration underground rose to explosive levels.
Local media coverage of the accident has been huge and critics say the blast could have been avoided if Mexican law had allowed mine owners to produce and sell methane, giving them the financial incentive to suck it out of mine shafts.
"This law would be an extremely positive thing for the country," said Jose Ramon, the environment ministry's undersecretary for environmental norms, told Reuters.
"If mines were properly de-gassed, it would surely reduce safety problems. The second thing would be preventing this gas from reaching the atmosphere for environmental reasons. And instead of throwing it away, we could use it as fuel like other countries do."
Mexico bans mines from siphoning off and selling the methane that seeps out of coal seams because of state oil company Pemex's monopoly on producing and selling natural gas -- of which methane is the primary component.
In addition to endangering the lives of miners, critics say the situation swells Mexico's emissions of climate-damaging gases and wastes huge volumes of valuable fuel, as mine owners leave valuable methane to seep out into the atmosphere.
WASTAGE HITS ENVIRONMENT
The latest stab at getting the law changed is being led by Manuel Ovalle, head of the lower house energy committee and a deputy for the ruling conservative National Action Party.
His bill would let mine owners collect methane and use it to generate power for their own use or sell it to Pemex, in line with Mexican law which bans private companies from selling natural gas or power to third parties.
"It will most likely be unanimously voted (in the lower house) and it should more or less pass in Congress too," said Ruiz, from the opposition left-wing Party for the Democratic Revolution. "The main thing is to stop wasting this gas."
Earlier attempts to pass the law foundered when Congress argued over how much mine owners could sell the gas for, and mine owners said the levels set were not financially viable.
Mexican steelmaker and coal miner AHMSA estimates it wastes $200 million worth of methane per year from its mines.
In all, Mexico lets some 150 million cubic meters of methane seep into the air from mines each year, Ramon said.
"Methane gas is 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas," he noted.
If tapped, methane from coal mines could modestly boost Mexico's domestic natural gas output, providing the fuel for electricity for tens of thousands of homes and helping Mexico curb a dependency on costly U.S. gas imports.