The Chuitna Coal Question

Introduction

Alaska has a problem.  Oil production from North Slope oil fields and a significant drop in oil prices have put our state in a severe recession. The state is struggling to find ways to pay for essential services (such as schools and roads, and police.)  In addition, Alaska now has the highest unemployment rate of any state in the country.

The Chuitna River

Pac Rim Coal says it has a partial solution -mine coal in the watershed of Cook Inlet Estuary.  Pac Rim Coal is a Delaware-based corporation owned by the Texas billionaire William Herbert Hunt.  They have plans in place for building a large coal mine near Tyonek Alaska along the banks of the Chuina River.

It has been said that the United States has enough coal to supply all of the electricity needs of our country for hundreds of years. Today, coal is responsible for 40% of world electricity production and more than half of the electricity produced in the US.  Coal is vital for the production of steel, and it can be turned from its solid form into liquid petrochemicals.

Although Alaska has large coal reserves, we use very little of it. This may be because the vast majority of Alaska’s coal is hard to get at to and coal mining requires a lot of up front capital investment.   This may also be because there isn’t much demand. Here in South Central Alaska, most of our heat and electricity come from the natural gas mined in Cook Inlet.  Only 3% of our electricity comes from the burning of coal.  By comparison, a much larger amounts come from hydropower and wind.

Coal is by far the dirtiest fossil fuel.  Pound per pound it adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than any other fossil fuel.  As you have learned in this class, the burning of fossil fuels has lead to significant increases in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.  This in turn, is increasing global ocean temperatures, changing ocean pH, increasing the length of coral beaching events, and raising sea level. It is not an exageration to say, that they use of fossil fuels has put our oceans in crisis.  In addition, the burning coal puts large amounts of mercury into the air and water. Mercury is a heavy metal that is toxic to fish, wildlife, and people.  The sulfur dioxide from coal smoke, can also combine with water droplets in the atmosphere to form acid rain.

Image from: http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/file/Hawaii+Carbon+Dioxide+Time-Series

Image from: NOAA

There is, however, one easy to reach coal field, along the Chuitna River, and is easy to reach and ready to develop.   Over 700 Million Ton’s of coal, just 45 miles away from Anchorage, and located near a major shipping lane.

What’s the catch?  The Beluga coal field sit on the diverse and biologically important Chuitna River Estuary.  Plans for the mine include the use of 100% of the water from a river that supports a diverse range of species including 5 species of spawning salmon.

Is this a case of job’s vs the environment?  Roads and schools for Alaska vs loss of critical salmon habitat?  It will be up to you to decide.

Task

  1. Read the background information.
  2. Use the text and the resources provided to answer the guiding questions.
  3. Write your position paper or build your presentation.

What do supporters of coal mining have to say?

According to the Alaska Coal Association, “Alaska’s strong economy and quality of life cannot be sustained unless we have a supply of energy that is abundant, affordable, and environmentally responsible. Coal excels in all three areas, making it a smart energy choice for Alaska’s future…”

Pac Rim Coal says that they are committed to creating jobs for locals, protecting the environment, and digging out of the ground several hundred million tons of low sulfur coal.  The details of their plan and its potential environmental impact are available through the Alaska Department of Resources.  Additional specifics are nicely summarized in Wikipedia.

The Mouth of the Chuitna River

What do opponents of the mine have to say?

A non-profit group called Chuitna Citizens  opposes the mine do so because of their concerns for the health and integrity of the Chuitna River, its fish, and wildlife.  Five species of salmon spawn in the Chuitna River. Salmon from that river are caught by commercial fishermen, local sports fishermen, and substance fishermen from the nearby village of Tyonek.  Another non-profit organization known Inletkeepers have voiced opposition to a mine they feel would damage the estuary of Upper Cook Inlet and the salmon that make their way through it to spawn in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and the Kenai Peninsula.  There is also significant concerns about the impact of the mine and its construction on the endangered Cook Inlet Beluga Whale.  An organization that promotes the preservation of America’s rivers recently named The Chuitna River – as one of America’s most endangered.  Concerns over potential degradation of wildlife habitant, wetlands, and salmon spawning grounds are paramount in their discussion of the what the loss of the Chuitna River would mean. “When you add it all up, the amount of pollution is amazing,” Jorgensen (commercial fishermen and Eagle River resident) said of the massive Chuitna surface coal mine operation being planned along the Chuitna River between Beluga and Tyonek on the west side of Cook Inlet.  You may also want to read – Salmon and Coal Face off in Alaska.

Guiding Questions

You must answer these questions before you write your position paper or build your presentation. They are based on readings linked to this page.  Answering them should help you write your paper.

  1. Establish the facts of a changing atmosphere. How much have CO2 levels increased in the atmosphere since 1950?  Since 2006? Using your own words provide a factual summary.
  2. Establish the facts of a changing ocean.  What happens to CO2 when it is dissolved in sea water?  What has happened to ocean pH since the 1980’s? Using your own words provide a factual summary.
  3. Establish the facts about Alaska’s current economy.  What is happening with jobs in Alaska? Using your own words provide a factual summary.
  4. Establish the facts on Coal.  What are the impacts of mining it, transporting it, and burning it?  Using your own words provide a factual summary.
  5. Read the section above “What Opponents have to Say,” and identify three distinct reasons why people are in opposition to the Chuitna Coal Mine Project.  One of the best ways to do this is to read – Salmon and Coal Face off in Alaska.
  6. Read the section above “What supporters have to say,” and explain three potential benefits from extraction of coal from the areas surrounding the Chuitna River.

Getting Started on Your Position Paper or Presentation

You will now write a position paper or build a presentation that clearly states the issues around the proposed Chuitna coal project and your opinion of it. The following prompts may give you a nice start on your paper.  You don’t have to use them, but if you are not sure where to start I encourage you to use some or all of these.  Remember to use as many good factual supports as possible.

Paragraph/ Slide 1: Summarize the facts about changes in the atmosphere and ocean that have resulted from increases in global CO2 emessions?

Paragraph/ Slide 2: Summarize the facts about the state of the Alaska economy.

Paragraph/Slide 3: Summarize the arguments of supporters of the Chuitna coal mine

Paragraph/Slide 4: Summarize the arguments of the opponents of the Chuitna coal mine

Paragraph/Slide 5: Summarize your own view(s) on whether or not the Chuitna Mine should go forward.  What do you believe?

Rubric

  1. Guided questions have been answered.  The answers are based in accurate and factual research. _____18 points
  2. Each paragraph has a clear topic sentence, each slide has a clear title.  ______ 5 points
  3. In paragraph/slide 1 and 2 you have provided at least two factual supporting details that reflect research. _____ 8 points
  4. In paragraph/slide 3 and 4 you have accurately summarized the views of supporters and opponents of the mine. _____ 8 points
  5. In paragraph/slide 5 you have clearly expressed and explained your own opinion. _____ 8 points.
  6. (for paper only) Any written material lacks major errors in spelling and grammar.  Except for the opinion, text has been written in third person, past tense.  Each paragraph has at least 4 sentences.  None of the text has been plagiarized.  _____ 8 points
  7. (for presentation only)  Delivery of the presentation is clear and uses a strong voice.  You make good eye contact with your audience and keep them engaged.  Presentation slides have good aesthetics, they are heavy in images and light in text. The presentation takes less than 5 minutes. _____ 8 points

Total Score _______/55 points