Alaska possesses roughly half the known coal reserves in the United States, and as worldwide energy prices remain high, Asian markets and local power utilities are increasingly looking to Alaska coal resources for “cheap” and reliable energy supplies. Yet in a state feeling the disproportionate effects of climate change, expanded coal development represents a major step backwards in our quest for clean renewable energy, sustainable jobs and healthy salmon fisheries. The Chuitna Coal Project – a massive billion ton proposal along the shores of Cook Inlet just west of Anchorage – is the most imminent threat, and would set a dangerous precedent that would lock Alaska into a failed energy future replete with devastating habitat destruction, higher mercury levels in Alaska fish, and more greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to the Chuitna strip mine, however, there are numerous other coal-related projects in the works. Unlike the Lower 48, Alaska’s reliance on coal power is low (roughly 10%). Yet coal is gaining a foothold in Alaska’s energy portfolio just as the dire effects of climate change in Alaska are becoming all-too apparent. From melting sea ice and receding glaciers to dying forests and warming salmon streams, Alaska has become the poster state for rapid global warming in the U.S.
Coal & Greenhouse Gases
Coal produces more greenhouse gases than any other traditional fuel source. USA Today has called Alaska the “poster state” for global warming, and in Southcentral Alaska, a massive spruce bark beetle epidemic, receding glaciers, invasive species and warming salmon streams highlight the devastating impacts of climate change on the region’s natural systems and the people they support. The scientific record is clear: current and projected carbon dioxide levels track closely to rising temperature trends in Alaska, and human-induced carbon combustion is the largest single contributor to these rapid changes.
Coal & Mercury
Coal Combustion is the Greatest Source of Human-Induced Mercury in the Environment. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, coal-fired power plants and other coal combustion sources are the single largest sources of human-induced mercury in the nation. Mercury is an infamous toxic pollutant that persists for long periods in the environment, bioaccumulates in fish and the people who consume them, and causes neurological disorders. Recent studies have shown that pollutants produced in Asia migrate across the Pacific Ocean through oceanic and atmospheric transport, and earlier this year, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin announced – for the first time ever – elevated mercury levels in Alaska fish.
Coal Mining Destroys Wetlands & Salmon Habitat
There is perhaps no more intensive land use than coal strip mining. Operators first deploy massive scrapers and shovel trucks to tear back the overburden and expose the coal seems, then they detonate vast quantities of explosives to break apart the coal for enormous draglines to gather and centralize the desired product. In the process, coal strip mining destroys the living layers of soil, peat and tundra that provide essential habitat and water quality and quantity functions. A review of peer-reviewed literature shows that most post-mining reclamation efforts fail to re-capture the essential functions of previously intact natural systems, and in some types of wetlands found in Alaska, there are no reclamation alternatives that return mined areas to their pre-mining condition.