Alaska stands at the crossroads of an exciting energy future, with a North Slope gas line, a Southcentral Spur line and world class renewable energy sources ready to provide cleaner, more secure power supplies and good, long-term jobs.
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But there's a fly in the ointment. As energy prices remain high, large corporations and local utility boards are increasingly looking to an energy source of the past - coal - as a quick fix for Alaska's energy needs.
In just the past two years, we have seen a host of coal projects thrust into Alaska's energy discussion, including: Texas developers' plans to open the massive proposed Chuitna coal strip mine on the west side of Cook Inlet, 45 miles from Anchorage; the Mental Health Trust's proposed Chickaloon coal strip mine, straddling the rich fish and game resources of the Matanuska River; Homer Electric Association's plans to restart the defunct and problem-plagued Healy coal-fired power plant; Agrium's plans in Kenai to use the Alaska Railroad's tax-free bonding capacity to build a coal-fired power plant and a coal gasification unit to produce fertilizer for export; and the Matanuska Electric Association's plans to build a coal-fired power plant near Palmer.
Coal is the worst choice we can make for our energy future. From denuded salmon, moose and bear habitat and aggravated climate change, to mercury in our fish and asthma in our kids, coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel. Yet the myth of "clean coal" has been elevated through a well-funded, coordinated spin campaign designed by the coal corporations to fool people into believing "new technologies" can prevent coal from harming our health and our communities. For example, the Alaska Coal Association has ramped up a "clean coal" campaign, complete with a pretty Web site and full page newspaper ads, to trick people into forgetting about mercury pollution, asthma and greenhouse gases from coal. You can see some of the coal industry's dubious claims in an opinion piece written earlier this year by Steve Borell of the Alaska Miners Association:
Claim: Alaskans can switch from natural gas to coal "without adverse impact to the environment." False.
Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel; coal is the dirtiest. In fact, the Ontario Ministry of Energy found coal's human health and environmental impacts to be at least four times greater than those of natural gas, and the U.S. Energy Information Agency found coal to produce 60 percent more greenhouse gases. Considering the ravages of strip mining, mercury in our fish, asthma in our children, and high greenhouse gas emissions, there's simply no such thing as "clean coal."
Claim: "Some folks argue [greenhouse gases from coal] may contribute to climate change." Wrong again. "Some folks" ignores the overwhelming consensus among climate change scientists. The experts with the International Panel on Climate Change found a 90 percent likelihood that man-made greenhouse gases are causing - not "may" be causing - accelerated global warming.
Claim: Using carbon dioxide from coal combustion to enhance oil recovery in older fields would "efficiently sequester" the C02. Untrue.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, C02 sequestration technologies are in their infancy. While C02 can be injected to help bring trapped oil to the surface, the C02 eventually escapes. So for the foreseeable future, enhanced oil recovery does not "efficiently sequester" C02.
As we know all too well, misinformation and confusion are powerful allies in the war against facts and science. But the stakes in this game are too high. Alaska is at a crossroads: We can move backwards to coal - and the costly asthma, mercury, climate change and habitat destruction that accompany it. Or, we can build the gas pipeline, and ride a natural gas bridge to a future of clean wind, tidal and geothermal power - and the secure energy and long-term jobs they will produce.
Whatever path we take, Alaskans expect and deserve decisions guided by facts and science - not the misinformation and distortions we're hearing now from Big Coal.
Bob Shavelson is the executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, a nonprofit organization that seeks to protect water quality and salmon habitat in the Cook Inlet watershed.