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Sierra magazine
The Great Alaska Coal Rush

Coal in the Cold

By Tomas Alex Tizon

The first coal mine in Alaska, the Russian-American Company, opened in Port Graham on the Kenai Peninsula in 1855. Coal mines have operated in the state ever since. Alaska coal companies, however, were never able to compete with coal from the Lower 48, or even with coal from Canada, Australia, and England. The state's harsh environment and lack of infrastructure have made much of its coal inaccessible. The rise of oil and gas production has also trumped the state's coal development.

Since the 1970s, only one coal mine--Usibelli mine in Healy, south of Fairbanks--has been active in Alaska. Considered a modest operation, Usibelli produces about 1.5 million tons of coal per year, sold mainly to customers in Alaska and South Korea.

But Alaska coal could become a major force if the coal industry gets its way. At least six coal-related projects are in progress in the state--the beginnings of a coal rush, according to some. If technology and political will find a way to mine the North Slope reserves, Alaskan coal production, by sheer volume, has the potential to dwarf that of Appalachia.

Here are the Alaska coal projects that have been proposed:

  1. Usibelli mine (existing)
  2. Healy plant The Golden Valley Electric Association has joined with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to reopen the defunct 50-megawatt Healy coal-fired plant, outside Denali National Park, in the town of Healy, near the Usibelli facility.

  3. Chickaloon mine Outside the south-central town of Chickaloon, the Canadian company Full Metal Minerals has leased 22,000 acres for coal exploration and development. The site contains an estimated reserve of 800,000 tons of coal.

  4. MEA plant In the Mat-Su Valley, the Matanuska Electric Association, a cooperative utility, has announced plans to build a 100-megawatt coal-fired power plant near Palmer, 42 miles north of Anchorage.

  5. Chuitna River mine Developers are in the advanced permitting stage of building what would be the state's largest coal mine, near the Chuitna River on upper Cook Inlet. PacRim Coal, a Delaware-based company backed by Texas investors, hopes to extract 300 million tons over 25 years.

  6. AIDEA/ANRLC plant Along the western shore of Cook Inlet, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority has partnered with Anchorage-based Alaska Natural Resources to Liquids Company to build a coal-to-liquids plant utilizing 50,000 tons of coal per day. The plant, which would convert billions of tons of coal into billions of barrels of liquid fuel, would be located near the proposed Chuitna mine.

  7. Agrium plant In the Kenai Peninsula town of Nikiski, fertilizer and ammonia producer Agrium partnered with the Homer Electric Association to build a 200-megawatt coal-fired power plant. The project, scheduled to go on line in 2011, was abruptly canceled in 2008.

  8. Western Arctic Coal Project mine On the North Slope, BHP Billiton, an Australia-based venture that calls itself "the world's largest diversified resources company," has entered into a five-year agreement with the Native-owned Arctic Slope Regional Corporation to study the prospects of mining a portion of the area's estimated 4 trillion tons of coal.

Map by John Blanchard; used with permission.

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