Alaska coal has a vital role to play in the production of cleaner energy

I'm contemplating a lump of coal. Not the one that may be in my stocking Christmas morning (really, Santa, I've been good), but one that is nonetheless jam-packed with energy and deserves a bit more respect than it has been getting of late.

It's packed with carbon too, and that's why coal's reputation is taking a beating these days, with all the signs of climate change. It seems like carbon is a dirty word, but it's really what life as we known it is made of, along with oxygen.

People concerned with climate change rue the continued and even rising use of coal as a source of energy, but the reality is that coal won't go away, not in China or India, or even our nation.

That's because it's cheap and there's huge amount of it worldwide, and in Alaska, too. People are going to use it no matter what they say in Paris.

What surprises me, however, is there's so little discussion of how to make coal cleaner, and of using new technologies, which are known, that can reduce its environmental footprint.

Big Coal is partly to blame for this. The U.S. coal industry views climate change as a leftist political plot, which is self-defeating. What the nation's coal industry needs to do is embrace scientists and technologists, not lobbyists. Big coal companies should help unleash entrepreneurial technology companies to make coal cleaner. We need people who think outside the box, like those shale gas and oil technology wizards who revolutionized the petroleum industry right under the noses of the big oil companies.

We have some of these people right here in Alaska. Some of them are at Cook Inlet Region Inc., one of Alaska's Native regional corporations. Another small company active in this is Linc Energy, an Australia-based firm also working in Alaska.


These are projects-in-the-making, but CIRI and Linc are working on a real innovation -- underground coal gasification. CIRI is doing this on coal lands it owns on the west side of Cook Inlet in partnership with small technology companies. Linc's coal leases are in the same area.

Could this be a game-changer for coal, like shale drilling is for petroleum? Too early to know, but give CIRI and its tech partners, and Linc, credit for having pluck and giving it a try.

What underground coal gasification involves is a controlled combustion in deeply buried underground coal seams. Compressed air is injected into the coal and the combustion, which is controlled by regulating the air intake, performs a chemical reaction that results in a "synthesis gas," a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, being produced to the surface.

Synthesis gas can be used directly to generate power, which is CIRI's initial plan, and eventually in the manufacture of a synthetic natural gas, chemicals and fertilizer, which are long-term goals.

In this way the value of coal is captured with less of an environmental footprint -- no coal mine for starters. Some products, like electricity, chemicals or liquid fuels, could be made with less of a greenhouse gas footprint because some of the processes result in carbon dioxide being captured in a pipe rather than emitted to the atmosphere. Concentrated in a pipe, it can be used in enhanced oil recovery, manufacturing, or even sequestered underground.

There are other possibilities with coal. For example, small technology companies are now developing small plants to manufacture liquid fuels and other products with natural gas and biomass. Until recently only very large, very expensive plants could do this, but the engineering wizards, borrowing from the microchip industry, have successfully downscaled these plants to the point they can operate on a commercial basis.

Using coal as a feedstock presents some technical challenges, but at the pace this technology is advancing it's not a stretch to imagine these smaller-scale plants could be adapted to use coal, similarly capturing the CO2 in a pipe.

Not all coal companies are as backward as many Lower 48 firms. Our Alaska coal operators, for example, are pretty forward-thinking in reducing environmental impacts, and I credit them.

For example, Usibelli Mine Inc., operator of a mine at Healy, was doing surface land reclamation there long before it was required by the government.

Usibelli isn't alone. PacRim Coal's planned Chuitna coal project isn't a mine yet, but the company is pursuing innovative ways of restoring salmon streams that would be disturbed by mining. PacRim's project is across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, not far from CIRI's project.

Alaskans have shown they can think outside the box. I believe we can do this because we're set apart from the Lower 48, and are not locked into hidebound thinking.

The big prize, however, is how to make coal cleaner on a global scale. Smart people can figure this out and should be allowed to do it. I'm a fan of renewable energy, but making use of cleaner coal is every bit as important, and deserving of an "X" prize, as a breakthrough in wind or solar power. The only other potential game-changer is nuclear fusion, but clean coal is more attainable near-term.

To really save the planet, we need all options deployed including making my lump of coal cleaner, and making nuclear power safer. But I'm not hearing this in the climate talks in Paris. I think there's too much politics there -- on all sides.

Tim Bradner is a natural resources writer for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com