It is time for Alaska to just say ‘no’ to bad carbon math

October 30, 2023 7:48 pm
A portion of Interior Alaska is seen from the Alaska Highway, roughly 25 miles east of the Manh Choh mine site on April 27, 2022. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/Alaska Beacon)

A portion of Interior Alaska is seen from the Alaska Highway, roughly 25 miles east of the Manh Choh mine site on April 27, 2022. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/Alaska Beacon)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy is deliberately bad at carbon math. He “needs” all Alaskans to ignore the math and just say “yes” to everything, including development projects that will collectively emit a lot more greenhouse gases, while touting a state carbon offset program that will alter the amount of emissions already in the atmosphere by zero. He’s fast-tracking review and regulatory processes, even bending a few, so massive ore trucks can wind their way through Fairbanks, as his administration steamrolls over any “no” or “yes, but” related to environmental and social impacts. He persuaded the entire state Legislature to say “yes” to his “smoke and mirrors” carbon offset program that monetizes the photosynthesis by trees that would continue anyway if the state didn’t log or clear them.

The infrastructure projects he’s most bullish about include the 800-mile liquefied natural gas pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to the Kenai Peninsula, the 211-mile-long road to the Ambler mining district, and the Manh Choh gold mine near Tetlin with the ore to be processed 240 miles away, north of Fairbanks.

Many companies interested in voluntarily meeting zero net carbon goals rely on greenhouse gas accounting protocols that distinguish between different “scopes” of emissions based on how much control a company has over them

Transportation of ore is an example of Scope 1 emissions, the term for emissions under the control of companies operating mines. The recent Ambler Road Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement estimated that hauling ore by road and rail to the Port of Anchorage would generate greenhouse gases equal to 54,230 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. Sixty 480-mile roundtrips by ore trucks daily from the Manh Choh mine to Fairbanks would rack up 10.5 million miles annually for four to five years, adding 80-100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere during the life of the mine. There are no plans to offset these emissions.

Operation of the LNG pipeline system will generate both Scope 1 or Scope 2 emissions depending on the anti-pollution technology installed and company control over energy sources. Scope 2 describes indirect emissions associated with purchasing electricity, heating and cooling. The project environmental impact statement estimates that operation of the gas treatment facility, pipeline compressors and heaters for the pipeline will emit about 16 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. Former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member Richard Glick noted in his dissent from the commission’s approval of the LNG project that this is “equivalent to four times the emissions of all of Alaska’s passenger vehicles.”

The state, as well as the federal and local governments involved in environmental reviews of infrastructure projects, are leaving the offsetting of a lot of potential emissions out of their carbon math―the ones that would occur during construction of roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure like ports and harbors being planned to come online during 2024 to 2030.  A substantial amount of construction of the LNG pipeline will occur in unroaded areas as will the entire industrial-use-only Ambler Road. Operation of construction equipment and transportation of construction materials, including gravel, supplies and workers will add emissions, along with construction camps in remote areas. An estimate of emissions from construction of the Ambler Road came in at 99,136 metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of annual energy use of 11,439 homes.

If you think of Dunleavy’s carbon credit program as a shoe, the other shoe may eventually drop. Oil and mining companies could begin purchasing state carbon offsets, kicking back some of their profits to the state helmed by someone they know to be “good for business” and at ignoring and steamrolling over environmental and social concerns. They could then claim zero net carbon has been achieved for their operations, as the oil company Santos has for operation of the Pikka oil field after purchasing forestry carbon credits from an Alaska Native corporation. Santos readily admits, however, that doesn’t include offsetting Scope 3 emissions. Those are emissions that are not directly or indirectly caused by a company, but are the result of the company’s supply chain — in Santos’ case, from distribution, transportation and shipment of the oil, plus customer usage at the other end of the oil pipeline, which will be much larger.

Saying “yes” to what Dunleavy is promoting will greatly increase emissions during the crucial decade for reducing them in the atmosphere. That new load of greenhouse gases won’t be offset by the purchase of carbon credits. That’s the math Dunleavy wants Alaskans to ignore. Secretary of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland recently pointed to climate change as “the crisis of our lifetime” as a reason for the cancellation of the state’s lease in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a good reason for Alaskans to say “no.”


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Marilyn Sigman
Marilyn Sigman

Marilyn Sigman is a retired climate science educator in Homer, Alaska, and author of the book "Entangled: People and Ecological Change in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay."