The Basics

The United States has been labeled the “Saudi Arabia of Coal” in light of its prolific coal reserves, and Alaska possesses roughly half the nation’s coal – or nearly 1/8th of world reserves. As a result, there is growing interest in developing Alaska’s vast coal resources for foreign export and domestic use. But given water and air pollution, denuded fish and game habitat, mercury in our fish, and aggravated climate change, coal is a dirty business. At every stage – from mining, transportation, combustion, and disposal – coal development threatens human health, clean air and water. There are better ways to power Alaska.

Alaska needs to be energy smart. Alaskans pay some of the highest costs in the nation for energy. But the solution is simple: energy efficiency is the cheapest, healthiest, and cleanest way to power our homes while lowering our power bills now. With a few small changes we can make big differences in the amount of energy we use, making a big difference in the size of everyone’s power bills. Energy efficiency is the only way to reduce rates and peak energy loads for the long term, saving us all money by reducing the need for costly power plants. Long-term benefits of energy efficiency include: sustainable jobs, lower energy bills, boosted the local economy, reduced energy loads, greater energy independence, healthier communities, and cleaner air. Unfortunately, Alaska is still relying on conventional energy sources like dirty coal.

Much of Alaska’s coal lies beneath pristine wilderness, like the western arctic and Chuitna River watershed. These areas, and others like them, are critically important to commercial, sport and subsistence fishing and hunting. Such wild places are the backbone of businesses that contribute hundreds of millions of dollars annually to Alaska’s economy. Unearthing Alaskan coal for short-term profit would devastate fragile ecosystems and threaten existing, sustainable and lucrative businesses.

A little more than half the coal extracted in Alaska is burned in Alaska; the rest is exported to foreign countries. The emissions from coal combustion are a significant source of harmful CO2, mercury and other heavy metals – heavy metals that are poisoning some Alaska fish. In 2007, then Governor Palin announced – for the first time in Alaska’s history – fish consumption advisories in select Alaska fish due to mercury contamination. The Governor’s staff conceded the likely source of the mercury in Alaska fish is power plants and related industry activities. So, a project like the Chuitna coal mine would contribute to mercury in Alaska fish, harming Alaskans who consume more fish than the national average, and undermining Alaska’s successful commercial fish marketing efforts. What gathers in fish flesh ends up in people. Coal exports from Alaska coal mines will add to an already serious problem.

The U.S. currently relies on coal for about 44% of its electricity, but in Alaska, that number is closer to 10%. And Alaska boasts only one relatively small coal mine – the Usibelli coal mine. At the same time, Alaska possesses the largest renewable energy reserves of any state in the nation, and from wind and tidal to geothermal and hydropower, we have the natural resources to chart a future based on clean power and long term, sustainable jobs. Equally important, renewable power creates flat-cost electricity, because fuel costs remain constant, so renewables do not present the prospect of ever-rising utility rates as we see with coal.

There are nearly 1,500 coal-fired plants in the U.S. that release billions of tons of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, trace amounts of uranium and other heavy metals into the air we breath. In addition to contributing to the destruction of forests and lakes, the acidification of the earth’s oceans, and climate change, these toxins penetrate deep into lung tissues and lead to chronic, life-threatening conditions including bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Alaska has six coal-fired power plants located between Healy and Fairbanks.  Disposal of coal ash, the from waste burning coal, can lead to serious health problems.  With improper coal ash storage, Alaskans can be exposed to serious health risks by living near a storage site, contacting reused material, inhaling particulates, drinking contaminated water and consuming contaminated food or fish.