Saturday, March 28, 2009

Alaska: Coal, first and last choice?

This year marks the 150th year anniversary of when Colonel Edwin Drake first extracted crude oil from underground reservoirs in Titusville, Pennsylvania. It also marks the 300th anniversary of when British inventor Abraham Darby invented the process to make choke. Choke is a charcoal- like fuel that is made from coal and can be used in the creating of steal, becoming an important substance during the industrial revolution. Although no one imagined it would still have the impact it does today, it still has a strong influence within many cultures, specifically Alaskan.

The technology of oil and coal influenced Alaska and its energy-based economy up to present day. Many state that they would have thought that by now some sort of nuclear fusion or some sort of advanced technology energy field could fuel flying cars off of its substance and would have surpassed the use and capability that coal and oil still have today.

During these anniversaries it just so happens that societies everywhere are facing an energy dilemma: should the global economy try to substitute natural gas and nuclear power for oil or just “simply” use coal? A quick natural gas solution for Fairbanks is to truck liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the North Slope. This process proves to be expensive and without state funding it might not happen. There are those that are looking for natural gas in the Nenana basin and do not want the state to help because there will be a competition with their own natural gas. This leaves individuals still waiting for an answer or results. Another solution that was suggested is piping natural gas through an in-state gas bullet line. This way the bullet line could supply those that are in the interior with enough natural gas to allow the interior to use compressed natural gas cars instead of gasoline cars. The issue proves to be the delay until the bullet line can be instated, which would be not till 2016 or later, which happens to be just as long as Nenana might take. Because of this time crunch, that leaves interior Alaska with a heating predicament and the final resort: coal.

Considering the issue of going green and global warming, few people like the idea of, or even the concept of discussing, or using coal specifically in the form of backyard coal boilers. Coal, when burned, produces the most carbon dioxide which contributes to the global warming issue and provides few sulfur pollutants. Oil is becoming scarce and as a result the price is beginning to rise to extreme heights.

Alaska, Fairbanks specifically, is right up front in terms of being exposed to the world’s energy turmoil. There are very few solutions, and even fewer that Alaskans are willing to use. Wood stoves might require the clear cutting of the states natural scenery to provide the Interiors 30,000 households with enough heat through he strict winters. Coal-to liquids would be costly and take far to long time implement, 2016 to long. Geothermal heat pump systems on individual houses are subject to freeze ups.

The way politics and the capitalist markets are playing out Interior Alaskan residents are going to have to make a choice. Considering the situation, they might be socially forced to make a choice between paying the very high and non-eco friendly way to heat their house while they wait a very long time until natural gas becomes locally available or switching to burning coal; the3 natural product that emits the highest levels of Carbon Dioxide.

Considering how long you have lived in Interior Alaska what choices do you feel you are being forced to accept? How much stronger of an impact does this situation have on us in Alaska as opposed to those that live in the lower 48? Consider the bullet line, would this help or hinder our social predicament? Spend some time reflecting on coal and how it affects our environment. What sort of impact will it have on society if we do/do not chose to use it?
photo of Seward from


  1. I have read this post several times and really didn’t know what to say. The issue about the energy usage is connected to so many other factors in reality.

    One thing that kept coming back to me is that almost everybody knows that we (as human beings and the planet) need a clean environment. For decades the environmentalists have been telling us about the urgency to take steps but little has been done and too much has been left behind or ignored.

    The conflict among the capitalism, the politicians, the normal consumers, and the powerful groups (such as the oil companies) has lead us to a point where many of us see the solution but nobody can make a move without concerning others. For example, we know that it is harmful to the environment to use un-renewable energy such as coal and oil. But like Psycho_Socist said in the post, we as consumers are forced to take the choice. We also know that making smaller cars and more efficient cars can do much better to the environment than the big-gas-eating cars. But commercials from the big corporations and social norms make us believe and want the big cars.

    Using the Critical Power Conflict theory, somebody or some group have to be willing to give up certain profit or sacrifice in order to solve the problem. But right now, I see only consumers sacrificing their welfare to adjust to the current situation while the big corporations still seek their ways to bigger profit.

  2. Well put Ever. Another thing that I thought would be worth noting is in response to making smaller and even more efficent cars than we already have. These cars would have to be created and alot of money would have to go into the process and individuals are going to have to invest. Lost version short, we are going to have to spend the money to save the money in the long run, but how will all of this be affected by the status of our economy?

    I agree with your final statement as well.... The rich get richer and the poop get poorer

  3. haha, um as interesting as poop is, my intention was "poor get poorer".. I dont think you could get much poorer than poop

  4. It is a well known fact what coal and the current form of energy uses are doing to the environment, but those at the top of the hierarchy, those that are in control of these mega-corporations, are so entrenched in politics, have so much clout and power, that the situation seems to be at a figurative standstill. The oil/energy companies lobby Congress to lessen the pressure to search for cleaner alternative energy, and in the end, everybody else that is not benefiting, financially or otherwise, from the exploitation of this energy use is suffering.

    The reason for this situation is that those in power do not want to give up their position at the top of the hierarchy. If a new sector of the economy focuses on alternative, clean energy, then those corporations, and, in turn, those who run and financially benefit from them, will see a staggering loss of money, which serves as quite a strong motivator to prevent this new type of energy research.

    Some may argue that this is not the case, that greed pays no part in these types of decisions; however, one need only look in our own state to see that this is not true. It was not so long ago that the price of fuel was so high that people in villages could not afford to heat their homes, and were dying because of it. Nobody, at least those in a position to do something, seemed to care. Yes, we may have received some money from the state of Alaska to lessen the burden, but that doesn’t go to the root of the problem. If those in power weren’t so obsessed with increasing their wealth and maintaining their status at the top of the hierarchy, then more would be done for those that find themselves at the bottom, such as those who cannot afford to fill up cars with gas to get to work, or who can’t afford to buy electric/hybrid cars, or those who can’t afford fuel to heat their homes.

    In order for the situation to be resolved we as a society need to get past the greed of those on the hierarchal apex and work to better the situation of all, not just those who can afford the alternatives. We as a society need to make alternatives affordable and attainable for all, and pressure those in power to stand up to these corporations and do what they were elected to do, work for the people of the United States, not those few who line their pockets with cash.

    To address the situation we face locally I have this to say: although it is a commonly believed myth that this country is the land of opportunity and plenty where the capitalistic economic system works for the betterment of all, this is surely not the case. It is striking how many monopolies continue to exist, with perfect examples present in the Fairbanks community, with our reliance on one or two energy and phone companies. If competition were such a fundamentally important aspect of our economy, a value that we cherish in this country, how can situations like this limitation to one form of energy (coal) occur? I think it is morally repugnant to limit Fairbanks’ access, or anyone’s for that matter, to alternative forms of energy. Limiting the residents to one, highly pollutant option seems comparable to a corporate stick-up of citizens.

  5. Sociologigi: Although no one has actually died as a direct cause of the heating fuel and food deficiency emergency in the rural Alaskan villages this past winter, it is true that there was a low response and lack of action by our Alaskan politicians.

    The extra $1200 we received as a part of our PFD last year to each qualifying Alaskan resident was supposed to offset the high cost of fuel and consequent high cost of food due to shipping and manufacturing that uses fuel (it’s all so cyclical!). That’s a total of about $756 million for only the supplemental $1200 per person. Many Alaskans spent the $3200 on new snomachines, vehicles, and other conspicuous consumption while those who truly need the extra money barely covered their fuel, bills, food, tuition, and other essential expenses.

    Is it fair that even the wealthy of Alaska receive the PFD when they don’t need it? The Palin family received over $19,000. $3200 for someone who earns over $200,000 is pocket change compared to someone who earns about $20,000. Couldn’t the PFD money going to those who earn over $150,000-$200,000 be used to repair our roads, invest in education, social programs and green energy research? Many Alaskans spend their money outside of the state through internet purchases and vehicles purchased outside the state (because of high fuel prices, shipment to Alaska costs so much it raises the prices of automobiles sold here) anyway so the money isn’t reinvested into our local economy.

    In a society where people’s ideals about material necessities are increasing more than ever to catch up with the ideals set by the wealthy, even for the $20,000 earner, that $3200 may go towards a new “necessary” 42 inch TV or laptop. To simply demand that Alaskans must band together to spend more money and time for the common good of clean energy and research and less on individual fulfillment is futile. Unless the wealthy and powerful take the initiative to set examples of less spending and accumulation, lessen the economic dependence on consumption and place emphasis on spending on public goods (roads, environment, water), allow the lowering of prices and universal accessibility of clean energy (that means subsidies), and enforce penalties to corporations investing their millions into non-renewable sources, there will not be significant change.

    Every aspect of Alaskan lives are affected by the revenue generated from oil and mineral extraction. Why have we allowed one source of revenue to fund our entire state budget? Even the UAF budget depends on the price of oil and minerals. How will billions of dollars of oil money transition to green energy money? Much of green technology needs little maintenance and human labor after being initially installed. How will we keep jobs after the initial “green energy” boom? Will it be similar to our oil boom and bust? How much money will green energy generate for Alaska? A drop in revenue means a cut into our education as well! What will happen to the coal plants, mines, and oil extraction sites after the switch to green energy? How will we fund clean-up, dismantling and environmental preservation? Will just be left to fester?

    *Sorry, so many topics!

    Fueled by oil taxes, Alaska spending soared under Palin

  6. Last year I spent over $7000 in one month on fuel. I have a 1500 gallon tank and the fuel was over $500 a gallon. The PFD was very much appreciated. In an attempt to alternate the use of the furnace I also purchased the large kerosene heater. After finding out that these heater produce a lot of carbon monoxide, I became very concerned having a child with asthma. Options for the consumer are limited. The majority (over half) of the coal found in the U.S. is found in Alaska. It is said to be low in sulfur. But two major problems are associated with it: it is wet and it is difficult to get to it. The process of converting the coal would create jobs but at what expense. It is a costly process. Until the corporate class and politician see coal as a major financial asset with potential, it will remain on the back burner. The consumer is forced to make choices from an expensive prearranged scarce list of options.

  7. Another local choice that hasn't been mentioned was the notion that families would uproot from Fairbanks and move to where it is warmer and not so extremely cold.

    Before we got the extra monies that was included with the PFD, I have heard many callers to local radio talk shows saying they have made this choice to leave Fairbanks.

    Military families are always leaving, and even if they live here, when their spouses leave deploy overseas, they go to their families outside of Alaska. Taking away that part of Fairbanks economy.

    One of the cogs of Fairbanks economy revolves around the military because this is an outside source that brings in the lifeline of our business here in Fairbanks.

    The military is all around, even in the villages through the national guard. A source of income for many that have joined. A lifeline in a drowning economy amidst a natural resource crisis sense.

    Forced choices to make.. well, sometimes you just have to make do with what you have during an economic crisis. You become resourceful when you know you won't get help from anyone right then right there.


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