Tech Talk - Can Alaskan Coal Be Considered a Reserve?

When I originally started to write about the Alaskan fuel sources, I had intended to write only about the oil and gas reserves in the state, as I have done over the past few weeks. I was, however, also asked about coal in the state. And then, to reinforce the need to at least look at this fuel, there was this recent quote from the Chancellor of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Dr. Brian Rogers.

Rogers said he has heard objections to the construction of a coal-fired plant, but that it was the only cost-effective way to heat the campus in interior Alaska.

Until now, I have had only one chance to visit an Alaskan coal mine, the Usibelli mines near Fairbanks. Further honesty compels me to admit that I played hookey that day and took myself and my grad student off to have look at the Yukon River, the Dawson Highway, and the Arctic Circle (certificates provided) instead. Not that the coal mining in Alaska is not important and coal’s presence not also visually obvious, but I had seen a lot of strip mines in my time.

Coal outcrop Alaska (DNR)

The coal seams of the region are clearly rich, thick, and near the surface, and so it is relatively easy to remove the overlying rock, mine out the coal, and reclaim the surface after the mine has passed. I have written about the evolution of the mining shovels used to remove the coal and rock and the use of explosives to break the rock and coal in earlier posts; there are also, at the Usibelli Web site, video and animations to show how they mine the seams of coal shown in the outcrop above.

As the University Chancellor noted, coal provides a considerable power benefit to the state, though it also has created several bodies that are opposed to its growth, particularly the operation of a new mine at Wishbone Hill. This opposition comes in a region where, in the past, mining operations have removed some 7 million tons from some 18 different operations. But again, in this series I don’t want to argue the pros and cons of individual sites. Usibelli currently mines more than 1.5 million tons of coal a year, with about 1 million tons used domestically and half-a-million tons shipped to the Pacific Rim (mainly Korea). Usibelli makes the point that one of the reasons power costs in Alaska remain high is because coal plays a smaller part in power generation than it does in other states.

Relative electricity price in comparison with the coal mix in providing electrical energy (UCM)

If problems arise in bringing natural gas to more of the state, then coal’s fraction of the mix may well increase. Certainly the amount of coal within the state is vast. It has been suggested that there is as much as 5 trillion tons of coal in Alaska, some 40% more than in the lower 48 states combined. The coal is found in three provinces: Northern Alaska-Slope, Central Alaska-Nenana, and Southern Alaska-Cook Inlet.

Coal regions of Alaska (USGS)

More recent estimates have had a tighter focus.

Previous coal resource assessments attempted to assess the total coal in the ground in the United States and Alaska, but those estimates tended to be high and included coal deposits that are either not available - containing coal beds that are too thin and / or too deep to be economically mined using present mining technology or that are not of sufficient quality to serve as a fuel for electrical power generation. Thus, this required a new assessment that focused on coal resources likely to be utilized in the next 30 years, which are for the most part, the coal beds currently being developed in existing mines or in areas that are currently leased in Alaska.

As a result, the 5-trillion ton estimate from the 1977 study has been trimmed to consider just the 160 billion short tons that includes the coal defined in the quote.

However, coal can only be considered a reserve if it is likely that it will be mined. At the moment it is the coal in the region around Fairbanks where the need is sufficient for coal to contribute to the state energy budget. But there has been exploratory activity in other regions as well, where mines have existed in the past.

North of the Brooks Range and lying over the National Petroleum Reserve, the Arctic Coal deposits hold the likely majority of the Alaskan coal. Unfortunately for those who would use it, it is not the easiest place in the world to reach and operate in. And although there was coal mining in the region as far back as 1879 (when it was used to supply whaling ships) it is not active presently. BHP Billiton have been and looked, and while not abandoning the idea completely, do not currently seem active. On the other hand, the state has been looking to approve prospecting permits in the Nanushuk region, which lies north of the Brooks Range just off the main haul road that runs up to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay. The request for a permit was approved by the state board, though there has been an objection from the Naqsragmuit Tribal Council (though I could not find a current web page for the Council).

However, in order for any coal to be mined above the Brooks Range, there has to be a viable method of transport. Though it has proved relatively straightforward to move coal by rail from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, conditions are considerably different above the Arctic Circle and the Brooks Range is a tad hillier than the Upper Great Plains. There is talk of moving the coal to the terminal where the Red Dog Mine ships out zinc concentrate, but that facility is only open from July to October - which might help China build up stocks in the summer but does little for the global high winter demand for fuel. Further, the haul road is not such that I can see it being able to handle heavy consistent loads of coal. (On the September day we went up that short distance, a haul truck went off the road ahead of us on one of the many snow-covered bends that snaked up and down the mountains).

There is active consideration of a mine at Chuitna, which is just north of Cook Inlet, in the Southern of the three provinces. About 45 miles from Anchorage the project would mine up to 12 million tons of coal a year for an initial period of 25 years. At present it appears that the Division of Mining, Land and Water is awaiting an updated proposal before moving ahead to make a ruling, possibly in a preliminary form next year.

Put altogether, although there is a lot of coal in Alaska, in relative terms it is unlikely that any significant volumes of that resource will be brought to the market in the near future. As a consequence, unless and until the demand pattern changes (and I think that it likely will) it is impractical to think that Alaskan coal will remain more than a resource. Further, given the need for a supporting infrastructure, it seems unreasonable to expect that even after global demand starts to rise, that the coal could come to the market and become a reserve in less than an additional 5 – 10 years.

"....coal by rail from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, conditions are considerably different above the Arctic Circle, and the Brooks Range is a tad hillier than the Upper Great Plains."

How about coal from the east Kootenay's and Rockies in BC....shipped west to Roberts bank and on to Asia? Rogers Pass (doubled track tunnel) as well as the other summits and general mountain terrain is more than 'hilly'. I have seen coal trains miles and miles long with the same size grain hauling rigs. Throw in some more slave loccis and these monsters move.

Maybe, when the Alaskan pipeline can no longer pump a declining resource, rail will haul stripped production and coal from this region?

Big investment required, of course, and an acceptance from folks that there are no other cheaper options. Further to this as production would increase so would required population to mine resource and provide support industries. As Alaska has already proven to support rail in the north, as opposed to Canada's abandoned lines and projects (Dease Lake extension for example), perhaps rail is a logical solution.


One has to wonder how stable the northern rail beds will be if the permafrost is disturbed.

Mining and transporting coal from the North Slope faces enormous environmental and logistic challenges. The entire region is underlain with permafrost, and the surface is largely wet tundra with only a thin layer of low-growing vegetation. Anything that compromises the insulating mat of vegetation could set off a chain reaction of thawing destabilizing the affected land. Extracting coal would be magnitudes more difficult than the production and movement of oil from Prudhoe Bay. Strip mining would be an environmental disaster of epic proportions.

Insofar as transporting the coal as slurry through the existing pipeline, that is a non starter. The line was designed for a different purpose, and it could not be easily converted to the movement of coal slurry. Indeed, the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) is nearing the end of its design life. Chances are that it will soon become a non functional monument to a past era. The only viable way of transporting coal from the North Slope would likely be via barge during the ice free summer season. With the shrinking sea ice this open water season will likely be extended.

Coal pipeline? Either log or slurry:

Yes, by all means, with declining petroleum EROI, let us look for even lower ones with coal. Let's burn it all until all of the crops we eat either cannot be planted because of floods or wither in the late summer droughts. As long as the rich can have their precious electricity, that is all that truly matters.

The only market interested in high-cost Alaskan coal would be China. They have regulated electricity prices such that the current fleet of coal power plants are operating at a loss given that many must pay international spot prices because they now must use considerable amount of imported coal, and coal power plant production interruptions are now curiously common. Conclusion: they need Alaskan coal but may not be willing to pay what it will cost to develop, mine and transport it. Remember that some of their competitive advantages in manufacturing for a global market is using local coal which they do not properly account for as a depleted resource, they install minimal or no pollution control on their coal power plants, and they use very low cost (slave?) labor to make it all work. Importing expensive Alaskan coal will not satisfy any of this, so they will likely never go for it.

Never say never. Conditions may be very different in coming decades, and they may be quite desperate to buy it at the same time that we are getting quite desperate to sell it. China has by far the lowest R/P ratio of any major coal endowed country (they are burning through their coal much faster) and so they may willing to pay quite a bit for it to keep the ship afloat as long as possible.

They are also building lots of nukes, and expanding renewables at an insane rate (75% 2010 YOY change), so they may be able to phase coal out, and as you say, not be willing to pay high prices for Alaskan coal.

Coal bed methane (CBM) will be much more environmentally acceptable than stripmining and
can reach coal beds that conventional mining cannot reach. Looking at the map most of the
coal is close enough to the pipeline that it could be produced and sent somewhere.

But when you look ahead 20 to 30 to 40 years in the future I think it will be brought to market. What other options are there, with nuclear being unpopular and the other fossil fuels depleting, and renewables being high-priced/intermittent?

That is an interesting photo. The conditions that made those seams appear and disappear must be a testament to long term climate changes. Us humans, we are so short sighted.

[edit] can you explain how climate change exposed uplifted rock? Am I missing something.. Geological forces exposed that. Or I guess we can claim climate change is changing everything all the time.. and I guess that has been true for 7 billion years for the whole universe.

Stable rail beds in Permafrost?

The coal is there, and when we get desperate/cost effective it will probably be mined. Unless a better technology comes along and makes it cheaper to not use it.

Thanks for the rail link, Brian
Unfortunately, the article did not address the issue of how CC may reduce permafrost (which the aspect that I wanted to raise). But the article did mention details that I certainly was not aware of, and I'm glad that Michigan Tech is involved.
It looks like the Arctic may need all the help it can get....

Perhaps I did not explain clearly enough. I was not talking about the uplifted rock. Go back to the time before the rock was lifted, to when the peat was laid down in the lower seam (x amount of years of vegetative swamp peat growing conditions. The cover that with the layer of rock between them( x amount of years of ?) and then a return of swamp peat making vegetation. Perhaps NOT climate change but certainly a long term change in that areas ability to make peat.

So you're trying to argue that only nature changes climate?
That's like saying the only way to get a bloody hole in one's hand is with a gun, no way can a broken drill bit, errant arrow, slipping knife, exploding engine, shrapnel from a hand grenade or an angry animal put a bloody hole in someone's hand.

Yes, nature can, did and will change climate.
The Milankovitch cycles,
variations in the sun's output, continental drift influencing albedo and ocean (heat) circulation, large eruptions of lava releasing massive quantities of CO2, and chemical weathering and fossil fuel formation sequestering the CO2 are a fews ways of nature that come to mind.

The Permian-Triassic Extinction Event and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum are two that stand out for the indications of abrupt and massive CO2 and/or methane injections into the atmosphere.
We humans are just copying nature in that regard.

Two references if you care to learn the science behind climate are:
The Discovery Of Global Warming
The IPCC Working Group 1: The Physical Science Basis" particularly the "Frequently Asked Questions" (click on that link, the numbered links below it are chapters).

But, back to the Usibelli coal,
this USGS document (mentioned by Alaska_geo)
says it's non-marine (i.e. freshwater) and fluvial (of streams) and lacustrine (of lakes),
and the lakes came and went due to tectonics.
When this coal formed, Alaska was about where it is now,
but the climate was much warmer (the Eocene is about 56-34 million years ago).
The PDF of the USGS has the figures and tables, the html does not.

The other coals Heading Out mentions were formed earlier, in Carboniferous times. 360-300 Million years ago. What was to become Alaska was much further South then, and CO2 levels were around 800 ppm (2x current levels).

What might be the possibility of building a coal to liquid fuels plant right at the coal mining location and then ship out the liquid fuels (gasoline/diesel) by pipeline?
Any chance that the liquid fuels could be transported via the Alaska Pipeline to help keep the volume up in that pipeline?

that would depend on the liquid you end up with after heating the coal. It does not seem economically sound to refine something and then dilute it in crude oil.

It's done all the time.  Bitumen from Canadian tar sands is diluted with lighter fractions to make it shippable by pipeline.  A CTL plant could not only add volume to the pipeline flow, it could make it lighter and perhaps crack some of the waxes before shipping.

A pipeline which carries both oil and coal fines and/or logs is an interesting idea.  I wonder how much would have to be re-engineered to allow this.

This is what I've been wondering about. In the future (2030's) when liquid fuels become hard to obtain for love or money, all that low grade coal on the North Slope, with newly ice-free seasonal sea ports, will start to look awfully tempting. Like the guy in the lifeboat in the cartoons who starts to look like a giant drumstick. You know you shouldn't, but...

5000 gigatons of coal in Alaska that is staggering. Burning that ought to melt everything.

The local villages ought to be burning it to get district heating and local electric power. rather then importing diesel after having first send oil south to be refined. or cutting down trees for heat.

Galena on the Yukon River may be the only off the grid Alaska town to have district heat. It exists because the Air Force station that was there built it, they had a bit deeper pockets than the typical village has access to. No doubt any village that can get oil by barge could also get coal by barge but I've seen no movement to change from the former to the latter. I don't know how EPA regs and the capital cost of fuel changeover figure into that.

As for the burning of trees--sustainable harvesting of some of the boreal forest hardly seems a bad idea. Wild forest fires-mostly lightning strike ignited-race through over 5,000,000 Alaska acres some years. Properly managed wood fuel harvesting by forest surrounded villages could help create and maintain fire break corridors.

I think you are right about district heating. unless they can make their own pipe the cost of hauling pipe in there would be large.

anything is better then hauling oil and diesel back and forth. As per EPA I doubt if most of the regulations even apply. The size is really too small to worry about. Especially when you add in the emissions of hauling the fuel in there.

capital expenses would be a problem because I am sure many people are living cashless. They are probably using oil fired boilers so switching to syn gas is not that much of a change. switching to a solid fuel would be.

There is more to it than that. Mechanical skills for dealing with internal combustion engines--snowmachines, chainsaws (where applicable), fourwheelers, pickups and DIESEL GEN SETS--are the norm in bush Alaska.

A lion's share of 'bush' Alaska home heating is done by high efficiency space heaters (kerosene heaters burning #1 fuel oil). These stoves only require up to 80W of electricity [edit] to run. They are very low mainenance and small light replacement parts are easy to ship by light aircraft. The heating solutions have run more toward better designed housing. But you are absolutely right about thc sometimes near cashless nature of the local economies. That makes capital mostly the stuff of government grants--an endangered species to say the least.

Wheeldog mentions traditional local coal use in the far north village of Wainwright a couple posts down. In southwestern Alaska my wife's grandfather used to haul some coal and mail-by dog team I believe-to the Bering Sea side of the Alaska Penninsula from near Perryville. Coastal coal resources near harbors were much in demand during the steamship days as HO intimates.

Just for fun I scaled the overland distance from Wainwright to Perryville--its better than a thousand miles, with precious few human settlements in between.

a thousand miles is a long way to carry coal. surly he found a closer source.

diesel gen sets? No wonder their costs are so high.

That would be a long way to haul coal, no the thousand miles overland is the distance from Wainwright (mentioned by Wheeldog) to Perryville. I doubt any land animal has ever traversed that stretch, it had nothing to do with the sled trail I mentioned. I was just curious how far apart the two places were. Steamships may have put in at both places in the same season. Wainwright is on the Arctic Ocean and Perryville is on the Pacific.

I'm not to sure of the details on the freight/mail trips from the Pacific side to the Bering Sea side but Moller Bay brings the Bering Sea to within about five miles of the Pacific, but there is at least a couple thousand foot high spine in between the two. Just about everyone who I knew that could tell me more about that haul is long gone now. [grammar edit]

There is always the radical option of reducing population and learning to live naturally within the environment -

Heading Out,

Is this 'melt everything' idea at all plausible?

With optimistic guesses as to how much of this resource will eventually be reserves, and presuming that AGW will eventually make Alaska climate much less thermally challenging, how much of ultimately recoverable reserves will remain when the climate flips?

How does the resource size in Alaska compare to the amount of coal mined so far in the run up the ultimate disaster?

Or restate the question in a way that is more amenable to a rational answer.

HO, thanks for a good overview summery. Below are a few general comments.

Those interested in a good and very detailed view of Alaska coal should see Flores, Stricker and Kinney: 2004, Alaska Coal Geology, Resources, and Coalbed Methane Potential, USGS DDS-77.

As noted, Usibelli primarily exports coal to Korea. They have also exported some to Chile. Coal is loaded onto the Alaska Railroad at Healy, then transported south to a coal loading facility at the Port of Seward. There has also been a good deal of oppoition to increased coal development. See Alaska coal creates demand, opposition.

There have also been several attempts at developing coal bed methane in Alaska. The most ambitious effort was a few years ago by Evergreen Resources in the Suisitna Valley near the town of Wasilla (yes, THAT Wasilla). This resulted in a firestorm of local opposition. There are some smaller CBM projects under study in less populated regions, notably by Usibelli in the Healy area.

One final minor correction:

......I played hookey that day and took myself and my grad student off to have look at the Yukon River, the Dawson Highway, and the Arctic Circle (certificates provided) instead.....

I believe HO meant the "Dalton Highway", also known as the "Haul Road".

Thanks for the corrections, that's what I get for proofing too late at night. I would have used more of the material from Flores et al, but I thought that the audience would prefer a more general piece along the lines of the title of the piece. You are right that it has a lot of good material in it.

By the way, when we rented the car it specifically said we were not covered to drive it up the Dalton Highway. When we got back that night the car was truly filthy to the point you couldn't read the license plate or tell what color it was, so we had to run the car through a car wash before I returned it lest I be caught out.

Thanks for the link to DDS-77 on Alaska coal geology. Lots of good graphics, charts and pictures in the full pdf file (about 77MB).

I've a slightly more than passing interest in the topic as my family does have a coal connection. My great-grandfather mined in Pennsylvania. Black lung got him. Then my brother, a civil engineer, worked for AMEX mothballing underground coal mines in the early or mid 1980s. He ended up with a bit of AMEX stock which after some of the convolutions in that industry made him a part own in the Fort Knox goldmine just north of Fairbanks. Small world indeed.

I'll also add that for a more adventurous trip up the Dalton there is also the option of renting a motorcycle.

The Eskimos of the North Slope burned locally mined coal for many years. The Kuk River/Lagoon has a shallow seam of low grade coal that is exposed by erosion along its north bank. The villagers of the community of Wainwright would burrow into the cut bank of the lagoon where the coal was visible using hand picks and shovels. They would bag up the coal and move it by dog team or skin covered canoe, depending on the season. This coal was burned in small metal stoves to heat local homes from the late 19th Century through the 1960s after which modern prefab homes were built and heated with imported oil. Coal debris would also wash up on the beaches near Wainwright during summer storms. This coal was collected by hand and bagged for local use. There was short period when a privately owned motor vessel from the village of Barrow would travel down the cost to the Kuk Lagoon and load up coal to be carried back to Barrow.

Their power rates are very high. If there is ever a case to be made to use local resources its Alaska.

If they have the local talent to run a gas works, it may pay to do so.

The downside of this is that town gas is highly toxic and things would have to be re-engineered to keep gas outside of living spaces.  CO monitors would be essential, and the occasional hydrogen explosion would happen anyway.

It might be easier to start by co-fuelling diesel generators with coal gas.

that screams wind-diesel hybrid...

Think Kodiak Electric Association.

A lot of Alaska has poor wind prospects, especially in the interior where many villages rely on diesel.

One thing AK does have in abundance is cold. This allows development of low quality geothermal resources that wouldn't work well in the lower 48.

Chena Hot Springs Resort project: