Western Arctic Coalfields

Historically, small amounts of coal were commercially mined in the western area of Alaska’s North Slope. During World War II (1939-45), bituminous coal was mined in Atqasuk for use in Barrow’s government and private facilities. Much of the western side of the arctic coastal plain in Alaska is underlain with coal. Several coal stations were developed for the arctic whaling fleets in the late 1800s. With the world’s thirst for energy increasing these areas are attracting some of the larger energy companies. An estimated 4 trillion tons of high quality bituminous coal may lie along what is referred to as the Northern Alaska Coal Province, a broad belt of coal extending from the Chukchi Sea on the west to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. That is roughly 11% of the world’s known coal reserves and 30% of the U.S. reserves. Alaska’s North Slope could be the world’s coal storehouse for the next century. The regional native corporation, ASRC, has teamed with BHP Billiton to explore for coal mines southwest of Point Lay.

Western Arctic Coal is of premium quality with an average of 0.23% sulfur, 3% moisture, 7% ash and has a heating value in excess of 12,000 BTU/lb. Compared to the coal fields of the eastern U.S. this is significantly lower in sulfur. Western arctic coal sulfur dioxide emissions run around 0.30 pounds SO2 / million BTU (0.54gm/mega-calorie), well below Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards. Using Western Arctic Coal as a blending feedstock for other coal sources during combustion can effectively reduce SO2 smokestack emissions.

Not that it would be used to meet U.S. standards. The primary potential market is to the west. All those new coal-fire power plants in China will need some low-sulfur coal to meet anticipated global air emission standards.

Another energy source from the coal fields is coal-bed methane. When I was at Atqasuk there was a technical group looking at some methane seeps in a nearby lake, and Wainwright is also looking at coal bed methane for power generation to replace diesel fuel.

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