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Alaska and coal

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This article is part of the Coal Issues portal on SourceWatch, a project of CoalSwarm and the Center for Media and Democracy. See here for help on adding material to CoalSwarm.

Introduction

Alaska has been estimated to have abundant coal reserves[1], but coal extraction remains low in comparison to the extraction of natural gas and petroleum in the state. Coal and peat extraction combined accounts for only about two percent of the entire mining industry in Alaska by value[2]. In 2004, the state produced approximately 1.5 million short tons of coal worth approximately $30 million dollars, which ranked it 23rd in the nation in coal production. [3] In 2009 this amount had risen to 1.8 million tons [4]. All of this coal comes from the only active coal mine in Alaska, the Usibelli mine. Founded in 1943 outside Healy, Alaska, the mine sells coal to six state power plants as well as South Korea and other Pacific Rim countries. The export coal is transported on the Alaska Railroad about 300 miles to Seward, a year-round ice-free port.[5]

Alaska relies more heavily on natural gas than coal for power generation. In 2004, the state consumed 393,000 short tons of coal for electrical power[3] to produce only 9 percent of its electricity. Alaska has the 7th highest average retail price of electricity at 12.84 cents per kilowatt hour.[6] In 2003, Alaska emitted 45 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, ranking it 37th in the nation overall. While the state's CO2 emissions are relatively low compared to other states, Alaska received the top ranking for per-person transportation emissions.[7]


Citizen activism

Opposition forces shelving of Matanuska plant

Matanuska Electric Association (MEA) is Alaska’s oldest and second-largest electric cooperative. MEA currently purchases electricity from Chugach Electric Association according to a contract that expires in 2014. [8] The MEA board of directors had initially decided decided to build a 100 MW circulating fluidized bed coal plant; however, Sierra Club and Friends of Matsu began organizing opposition to the plant in April.[9] MEA spent $160,000 on a campaign to convince member-owners to support the plant.[10]

On Nov. 9, 2007, facing public opposition, MEA general manager Wayne Carmony sent a memo to board members, announcing plans by administrators to shelve plans for the Matanuska plant for at least five years; the board met on Dec. 11 to consider this proposal.[11]

In March 2010 anti-coal groups targeted Golden Valley Electric Association's plan to restart an inactive Healy Power Plant but would have to go into debt as a result. The GVEA Ratepayers Alliance stated in response that the "black hole" for energy customers' money and opposed the plant's reopening.[12]

Opposition to Usibelli Coal Mine

Wishbone Resident Opposes Mine.

In early June 2010 members of the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council stated that they plan to "do everything we have to do to impede progress of the road, mine and exploration activities" planned by Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. north of Palmer, Alaska. The company is considering mining a lease they hold called Wishbone Hill. Usibelli Coal estimates that the lease holds about "10 million tons of coal, enough to operate a mine for 12 to 20 years and employ 75 to 125 workers." The company began building a 2.7 mile road to the site in June. The company plans to begin production in 2012.

Area tribal leaders and other local citizens organized a protest stating that Moose Creek, which runs next to the proposed mine, is a cultural and religious symbol for the people.[13]

On June 15, 2010 citizens protested in downtown Palmer, Alaska prior to the Mat-Su Borough Assembly's vote on whether or not to extend Usibelli's permit to move forward with the proposed mine. The Assembly voted 6-1 to extend the permit, which will expire in five years.[14]

The Mat Valley Coalition is a coalition of multiple residents and local organizations opposed to coal mining throughout the area. Coal exports from the mine will be shipped through The Port of Seward.

Coal dust lawsuit

On Jan. 10, 2011, federal Judge Timothy Burgess ruled to allow a coal dust case to proceed in court. The lawsuit, filed by Alaska Community Action on Toxics and the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club, alleges that coal and coal dust discharge falls into Resurrection Bay from the Alaska Railroad and Aurora Energy's Seward Coal Loading Facility. The facility is owned by the Alaska Railroad and operated by Aurora Energy Services. According to the lawsuit, without proper containment equipment at the facility, debris can fall into Resurrection Bay from a conveyor as coal is loaded onto ships for export to Asia and China. Coal dust is also reported to blow off the stockpiles and into the bay, where it covers charter boats and nearby neighborhoods. The court threw out objections raised by the Alaska Railroad and Aurora Energy Services that the case should be dismissed. The Alaska Railroad and Aurora Energy Services have paid fines totaling over $200,000, most going toward mitigation processes such as sealing and adding coal chute misting systems and high pressure spray bars to water the dust down, but the lawsuit seeks to mitigate community exposure to the dust, which has been linked to health problems.[15]

Public crowds meeting on proposed Wishbone Hill coal mine project

A public meeting to discuss the proposed Wishbone Hill Coal Mine project near Sutton by the Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. took place on September 8, 2011 in Alaska. While some at the meeting supported the mine prospect because of potential job creation, many others stated they were opposed to the mine because of environmental and health concerns. The mine is to be located about 50 miles northeast of Anchorage.

"I have no problem with people wanting jobs," said Diana Ramsted. "But, I do have a problem — a big problem — with the wind in Palmer: the wind here that's going to take coal from where the Wishbone Hill is and blow it into children's lungs."[16]

In another public meeting to discuss the Wishbone Hill Coal Mine, approximately 300 people gathered, the majority of which attended to voice concerns about the proposed mine, noting health concerns.[17]

Proposed Coal Mine in Chickaloon Divides Residents

Chickaloon Residents Confront Foreign Coal Company.

In October 2012 two residents from Chickaloon, Alaska blocked the the transport of heavy machinery to the Riversdale coal exploration site, and demanded to see a permit to the Project Manager. The community surrounding Chickaloon is reportedly at odds over the proposed mine.

“It's going to change our lives around here whether we like it or not,” said Braendel. “And I hunt moose up there in the fall and it has potential to wreck my moose hunting area.”[18]

In December 2013 Riversdale Alaska said it was mothballing its plan to mine coal in the Chickaloon area, and looking instead to coal prospects in Alberta, Canada.[19]

History

The first coal mine in Alaska was opened by the Russian-American company in 1855, while the region was still a Russian territory. After the U.S. purchased Alaska in 1867, numerous other coal mines opened, and by 1900 production was about 3000 tons per year. Alaska mines provided only about 3 percent of the coal used in the state, with the rest coming from Canada and Washington. In the early 1900s, coal production increased to provide coal to the U.S. Navy, the Alaska Railroad, and growing developments at Fairbanks and Anchorage. In the late 1920s, Alaska produced about 100,000 short tons of coal; production increased to 700,000 short tons in the 1950s. After World War II, coal markets declined as military bases dissipated, the Alaska Railroad converted to diesel-electric trains, and large deposits of oil and natural gas were discovered in Cook Inlet. Coal production ranged from 600,000 to 900,000 short tons until 1985, when it increased to 1.4 million short tons with the beginning of coal export to Korea.[20]

Legislative issues

Proposed coal plants

Active or Uncertain

Cancelled

Citizen groups

Coal lobbying groups

Power companies

Existing coal plants

Alaska is 46th in the nation in coal power generation, with coal-fired power units at six locations totaling around 136 megawatts (MW).[21][22] None of these units is larger than 50MW.[23][24] (To see a map of existing coal plants in the U.S., click here.)

Click on the locations shown on the Alaska map for plant details:


Loading map...

Coal Exports from Alaska

It is estimated that over a million tons of coal is exported from Alaska by Usibelli Coal Mine annually. This amount of coal accounts for half of the coal mined by Usibelli, with the rest of the coal mined by the company being consumed in the state of Alaska. In 2009, about 801,000 tons were shipped overseas out of The Port of Seward, compared to the 471,000 tons exported from the port in 2008, according to data supplied by the Alaska Railroad to the Fairbanks North Star Borough.[25]

It has been noted that a particular attraction of Alaskan coal is its low sulfur content that allows more of this coal to be burned while staying in compliance with regulations that restrict sulfur dioxide emissions. In addition, Alaska is located closer to the large Asian markets than the rest of the US, and there is a potential for trade through the Northwest Passage to the eastern US and Europe as the arctic sea ice retreats. Exports of Usibelli coal were higher in 2010 than in previous years and the company expects this trend to continue. Usibelli is working with a Japanese company, J-Power, to explore the feasibility of exporting coal from their Wishbone Hill site.[26]

It was reported in September 2011 that the Usibelli Coal Mine was increasing coal production from 10,000 tons a year to 2 million tons a year. Much of the coal will be exported to Asian markets through Alaska's Port of Seward.[27]

Coal Mines

For a list of coal mines in Alaska, go to Existing coal mines in Alaska

As of 2010 there was approximately one active coal mines in Alaska with production of approximately 2,151 short tons per year.[28]

The Usibelli Coal Mine (UCM), located near Healy, is Alaska's only operational coal mine. UCM produces approximately 1.5 million tons of coal per year, which it supplies to six Interior Alaska power plants and exports to South Korea and several other Pacific Rim destinations.[29]

The Western Arctic Coal Project is an exploration project being undertaken by BHP Billiton. In July 2006 BHP Billiton signed a memorandum of understanding with the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) "to conduct a five-year coal exploration program and concept-level project evaluation on corporation lands in northwestern Alaska." The project area is to the south of Point Lay.[30]

Proposed coal mines

Chuitna River mine

Chuitna Coal Mine Threatens Alaska Salmon

The Chuitna River mine is a proposed coal strip mine 45 miles west of Anchorage on the Cook Inlet. PacRim Coal hopes to extract 300 million tons of coal over 25 years, making the mine Alaska’s largest coal strip mine and the third largest in the United States.[31]

PacRim Coal is seeking permits for the Chuitna River mine, located about 45 miles from Anchorage. The company hopes to produce approximately 300 million metric tons of coal over the next 25 years, for export to Asian power plants. Scientists studying the potential environmental impacts of the project found that, if the mine is developed, it will cause irreparable damage to salmon streams near the west side of Cook Inlet. The report was prepared for the Chuitna Citizens Coalition and citizen group Cook Inletkeeper.[32]

Chickaloon area

In 2011 it was announced that 9,927 acres of land in the Chickaloon area could potentially open to coal mining, to the company Riversdale Resources.[33]

In early January 2012, state officials announced that Riversdale Alaska LLC -- a subsidiary of Australian Riversdale Mining (owned by global miner Rio Tinto) -- submitted the winning $3 million dollar bid for an almost 10,000-acre tract of land in southern Alaska for coal mining, in the Mat-Su Valley near Chickaloon. Riversdale outbid several companies, including Usibelli Coal Mine Inc.

The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority's Trust Land Office, which is leasing the tract, said development could bring much-needed dollars for mental health programs. The lease includes rental payments and royalties from any coal produced.

The company must now obtain a state Department of Natural Resources permit to explore the quality of the coal. State officials say the tract is believed to contain high-quality and low-sulfur bituminous coal. The Chickaloon-based Castle Mountain Coalition is rallying supporters against allowing Riversdale to mine.[34]

Nanushuk Coal Prospect

The Nanushuk coal deposits are part of the Northern Alaska-Slope coal province and contains over 150 coal beds, including those at Corwin Bluffs, Cape Beaufort, and along the Kukpowruk River. The coal is primarily bituminous and subbituminous. In 2010, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) began working on approval for preliminary coal prospecting permits covering 116,000 acres of land within the Nanushuk Group north of the Brooks Range. This was in response to requests from three exploration companies: Beischer and Associates, Xplore LLC, and St. George Ventures Inc.

A site-specific plan was approved in July 2010, but has been appealed and is awaiting adjudication. In February 2011, the Naqsragmiut Tribal Council adopted an official resolution strongly opposing coal exploration the area and sent a letter to the governor outlining their concerns about impacts on the water, air, and subsistence resources of the area.[35]

Wishbone Hill Coal Mine

Wishbone Hill Coal Mine is a proposed coal mine in the Matanuska Valley, Alaska, by Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc. The site is approximately 5 miles west of Sutton, AK. It is estimated to contain 14 million tons of bituminous coal. A permit for exploratory drilling at the site was approved by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in July 2010. That permit has been appealed by several local organizations and tribal councils.[36]

Underground coal gasification

In January 2011, Linc Energy announced that it had been awarded the full 181,414 acres of underground coal gasification leases that it sought from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, which granted the Alaska exploration licences for an undisclosed sum. Linc says the decision came after over six months of geological assessment and tender submissions, and that the company will "aggressively" conduct coal exploration for underground coal gasification over the next two years. Linc Energy posted a net loss of $16.26 million in the 2010 financial year.[37]

Synfuel and other Coal-to-liquids (CTL) Projects

There are several proposed coal-to-liquids(CTL) projects underway in Alaska. The first is the Eielson Air Force Base Coal-to-Liquids project. In September 2008 the Senate Appropriation defense subcommittee approved a proposal by Alaskan Republic Senator Ted Stevens for the inclusion of $10 million for a study on locating a coal-to-liquids fuel plant at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that the funding was included in the $488 billion draft defense spending bill for fiscal year 2009 with the support of the U.S. Air Force.[38]

Second, in March 2009, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) began work in Alaska on a pilot initiative to use synthetic fuels to power jets. The project would be an incentive for developers of coal or gas-to-liquids plants in Alaska. While the DOD initiative is separate from the plan to create a coal-to-liquids facility at Eielson Air Force Base, the Eielson project could eventually become part of the broader military objective to develop synthetic fuels in Alaska.[39] As of April 2010, this project was still on the table according to the Air Force. [40]

Also associated with the Air Force push to develop synthetic fuels is the Fairbanks Coal-to-Liquids project which would produce 20,000-40,000 barrels of liquid fuel per day. This facility would require construction of a 500-600 MW traditional coal-fired power plant.

Lastly there have been proposals to develop coal-to-liquids facilities near Usibelli Coal Mine (Healy CTL[41]) and near the proposed Chuitna River mine (Beluga CTL[42] a.k.a Alaska Natural Resources-to-Liquids plant).

Resources

References

  1. Alaska's Wild Resource Web: Quantifying Coal, accessed April 2010.
  2. Alaska's Mineral Industry 2008
  3. 3.0 3.1 Mining in Alaska, National Mining Assocation, accessed June 2008.
  4. "Usibelli revises estimate of coal reserves",
  5. Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc., accessed June 2008.
  6. "The Facts", America's Power, accessed June 2008.
  7. "Texas, Wyoming lead in emissions", USA Today, June 2, 2007.
  8. "Stopping the Coal Rush", Sierra Club, accessed January 2008. (This is a Sierra Club list of new coal plant proposals.)
  9. “Coal Plant Critics Urge MEA to say No”, Anchorage Daily News, June 1, 2007.
  10. "MEA Looks Beyond Coal Plant", Anchorage Daily News, November 14, 2007.
  11. “MEA to Shelve Coal Plan for At Least Five Years” Anchorage Daily News, November 10, 2007.
  12. "Anti-coal groups target Healy plant's debt" Associated Press, March 26, 2010.
  13. "Village council vows to block Wishbone Hill coal project" Rindi White, Anchorage Daily News, June 10, 2010.
  14. "Permit extended for proposed Alaska coal mine" Anchorage Daily News, June 16, 2010.
  15. "Coal dust case proceeds" Seward Phoenix, Jan. 11, 2011.
  16. "Public crowds meeting on proposed Sutton coal mine" Chron.com, September 7, 2011.
  17. "Coal Mine Opponents, Supporters Gather In Sutton For Last Public Comment Hearing" Jason Lamb, KTUU.com, November 15, 2011.
  18. "Proposed Coal Mine in Chickaloon Divides Residents" Megan Edge, KTVA, October 1, 2012.
  19. Ellen Lockyer, "Riversdale Puts Chickaloon Coal Prospect On Hold," KSKA - Anchorage, December 16, 2013.
  20. State Coal Profiles: Alaska, Energy Information Administration, January 1994.
  21. Environmental Integrity Project, "Dirty Kilowatts: America’s Most Polluting Power Plants", July 2007.
  22. Dig Deeper, Carbon Monitoring for Action database, accessed June 2008.
  23. Power Plants in Alaska, Powerplantjobs.com, accessed June 2008.
  24. Existing Electric Generating Units in the United States, 2005, Energy Information Administration website, accessed May 2008.
  25. "Alaska could see another record in coal exports this year as production grows" Tim Bradner, Alaska Journal of Commerce, June 10, 2011.
  26. "Exporting Alaska's Coal" Ground Truth Trekking, accessed June 13, 2011.
  27. "Asian demand sparks surge in Alaska mining projects" Manuel Quinones, E&E Reporter, September 12, 2011.
  28. "Coal Production and Number of Mines by State, County, and Mine Type, 2010" U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 2010.
  29. Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc.
  30. BHP Billiton, "Western Arctic Coal Project", BHP Billiton website, accessed June 2010.
  31. “Climate Irony: Utah Ski Resort Owner Plans Giant Alaska Coal Mine”, EcoFactory, August 19, 2009
  32. "Reports: Beluga coal mine would hurt streams," Associated Press, August 17, 2009.
  33. Andrew Wellner, "Coal land seller corrects record, opposition has concerns" Frontiersman, January 7, 2012.
  34. Manuel Quinones, "Australian company gains control of large coal tract," E&E, January 9, 2012.
  35. "Nanushuk Coal Prospect," Groundtruth Trekking, accessed August 2012.
  36. Evan Shields, "Wishbone Hill Coal Mine (proposed)" CoalDiver.org, accessed November 2010.
  37. "Linc acquires Alaskan exploration licences" Finance News Network, Jan. 27, 2011.
  38. R. A. Dillon, "Appropriations bill includes $10 million for liquid coal project", Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, September 11, 2008.
  39. "Military eyes Alaska for synthetic fuels project", Rena Delbridge, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, March 29, 2009.
  40. "Murkowski Emphasizes Interior Military Concerns at Senate Appropriations Hearing",Press Release, April 22, 2010.
  41. Alaska's Wild Resource Web: Healy CTL,
  42. Alaska's Wild Resource Web: Beluga CTL,

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