Alaska's story is changing. Fossil fuel industries are entering their twilight.
Oil prices that balanced the state budget a few years ago were at their highest in history, even adjusted for inflation. Those highs will not become the norm again. Meanwhile, the world's move to alternative energy is happening rapidly. Oil is going out of style.
Complex world forces determine oil prices. A war could break out and send them spiking up again. But I'm talking about the long-term trend.
The story of coal makes a good example.
Alaska has an eighth of the world's coal reserves in the ground, but no Alaska coal is being exported now.
Usibelli Coal Mine is one of Alaska's oldest and most stable businesses, producing coal in Healy mostly for electrical generation in Fairbanks. Workers spend their careers there, and many families have multiple generations with the company. The Healy deposit has enough coal for more than 350 years.
But at current world coal prices, shipping facilities for Healy coal in Seward are idle and Usibelli's permitted Wishbone Hill mine near Sutton has not started production, said Bill Brophy, vice president of customer relations.
Opposition from neighbors to the mine tied up Wishbone Hill long enough that the price of coal dropped and the economic opportunity passed.
"It is very frustrating," Brophy said. "What should have taken a relatively short 120 days or so for the permitting process took several years, and in that time the market changed."
But Brophy said the company is doing fine with the Alaska market. Newly fired coal-burning facilities in Fairbanks and Healy could operate for decades.
Coal producers in the rest of the country aren't doing as well. In the last decade, no new coal-fired power plants have been built due to concerns about climate change — coal is our most carbon-intensive form of energy — and existing plants have been turned off because they are more expensive to operate than generators running on cheap, clean natural gas produced by fracking.
This year, more electrical generation will be installed nationally using solar energy than any other source. Over a decade, coal has dropped from producing half of America's electricity to a third.
Facing the poor U.S. market, coal companies invested in making overseas sales, but international prices are down, too. China's economic growth is slowing and its air pollution problems and carbon-reduction commitments will require it to turn to other energy sources.
Competition for the flat market has driven down the price. Indonesia is closer to markets, has lower production costs, and produces coal containing more energy per ton than Alaska coal.
The largest U.S. coal mining company, Peabody Energy, announced Wednesday that it couldn't pay debts on time and may declare bankruptcy. Other companies have already fallen. Major coal mining and export projects across the western U.S. are being scrapped.
Dan Graham, president of the Alaska Coal Association, believes international coal prices are in the low part of a cycle and will recover over the long term as India and China develop and Japan and Korea use more coal.
Prices have risen and fallen before.
Graham works for PacRim Coal as project manager of the Chuitna coal project, a proposed mine on the west side of Cook Inlet near Tyonek that, if built, would produce coal for export. Investors began developing the project in 1972 and got permits in 1987. But environmentalists challenged the mine in court and then the land got caught up in the Mental Health Land Trust litigation. By the time all that was resolved, coal prices were down.
In 2005, with coal prices rising again, the company gave it another try, funded by oil billionaire Herbert Hunt.
"We're kind of seeing it replay," Graham said. "The difference is, in the '90s they let their permits lapse. This time, we're going to keep the permits active."
But maybe the price won't come back.
Carly Wier, of Cook Inletkeeper in Homer, concedes that environmentalists' strategy has included tying up projects until prices dropped. With a permit system that inevitably moves toward project approval, opponents' main ways to stop development projects they oppose are through delay or by obtaining permit conditions that make the work uneconomical.
Our system of reviewing projects is slow, unenlightening and expensive. Opponents never get to make the case that a project is bad and should not be approved. Proponents must invest enormous time and effort in technicalities to defend against potential time-wasting challenges by opponents.
Developers never know when they will reach the finish line. Environmentalists can never relax their vigilance. A clear, value-based choice about projects never happens.
But for coal, at least, the end may be nearing in that century-long dance.
"Coal is dying," Wier said. "This is not a small shift. It is a huge sea change."
I tend to think she's right. Usibelli will chug along for decades on the local market, but large Alaska coal exports seem unlikely for a decade or more. By then, renewable energy will be even more established. Where will a new coal boom come from in the low-carbon future?
A similar story may develop for oil. Environmentalists might not need to fight another project such as Shell's offshore Arctic drilling. Oil from shale fracking now competes on cost with Alaska's already developed oil. That competition could keep the price for our oil below what is needed for large-scale Arctic exploration.
Meanwhile, new technologies such as electric and hydrogen vehicles will be eating away at oil's market share.
As I noted earlier, oil prices move rapidly based on international politics and other complex factors. Predictions are usually wrong. But the long-term trend suggests Alaska's fossil fuel history may be at the beginning of its end.
We need to start thinking about that future rather than holding on to the past.
Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.
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