Locusts - Environmental Opposition to the Susitna Dam Begins
One of the Rites of Spring I do with my youngest son every year is to spend the afternoon at the Great Alaska Sportsman’s Show. We look at all the guy toys and visit with old friends, generally having a good time.
Over the years, we have started seeing an infestation of locusts into the show. These are the various environmental groups who oppose a particular project – mostly mining – with the message that allowing it to proceed would devastate for all time hunting and fishing in each particular locale. If I remember correctly, Bob Gillam’s Renewable Resources Coalition was the first group to show up several years ago. Over the years, their numbers have increased as opposition to mining in the MatSu and Chuitna has grown. This year, we saw a new group opposing the Susitna Dam. And it is that group that I want to discuss today.
I call these people locusts because like locusts, they show up out of nowhere and devastate all economic activity in their path, leaving nothing behind. They are not interested in improved hunting opportunities, for they universally oppose predator control intended to increase moose and caribou numbers. They oppose hatchery fish intended to boost the number of salmon in the streams. The Wilderness Society and the Alaska Center for the Environment did this via court action shutting down a hatchery project intended to increase red salmon in the Kasilof River half a decade ago. They have turned Denali into a place where wildlife is rarely seen any more. And they want to visit this devastation of hunting and fishing opportunities on the rest of us.
With all this in mind, I stopped at the anti Susitna Dam booth and struck up a conversation. It did not go well. I got yelled at by a very nice lady who had bought what they were selling hook, line and sinker. I was told to go home – not just to my house, but out the state completely. She ended her portion of the discussion saying she did not want any more people in the state. I wonder how and where she thinks her grandchildren will get jobs and raise their kids.
This was just a random encounter, but it demonstrates the power of the “I’ve got mine; everyone else can go hang” mentality so prevalent among our neighbors today.
The reason we need the Susitna Dam is because it will provide clean, renewable energy for perhaps the next century. It will meet about 60% of the electrical needs of the Railbelt. And it will do it without emissions of anything. The location of the dam and the lake will be well above the salmon spawning portion of Montana Creek. And a deep lake can be stocked with lake trout, rainbow trout and grayling for fishing, boating and other water sports.
The brochure by the Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives makes their case against the dam via a series of deceptive statements, half truths and out and out lies.
They first go after the cost of the dam, claiming it will almost double the yearly current capital budget of $2.7 billion. Electrical generation is expensive. The new Chugach power plant next to Minnesota is in the neighborhood of $360 million for 186 MW. And Chugach needs natural gas every day to run it. Susitna is a decade long $4.3 billion project that will produce around 600 MW for a century without needing any fuel. Sounds like a good investment to me.
The Coalition then tries to make the case that the dam is unnecessary because it will only provide 25% of the total energy needs of the Railbelt. This is deceptive, as it fails to note our near total reliance on natural gas here in SouthCentral Alaska for heating and electricity. Heating is about a third of total energy needs and electricity is another third. Liquid fuels for vehicles are the remaining third. If the natural gas goes away or its supply is in any way curtailed, we instantly impact two thirds of total energy used in the Railbelt and things will get very cold and very dark in a hurry, as we use natural gas both for heating and electrical generation. Susitna is a logical and reasonable attempt to diversify our energy portfolio. The Coalition ignores the hard lesson Juneau learned over the last few years when avalanches cut electrical transmission into the town. If you are not diversified, things will get instantly very expensive should a problem occur.
They then claim that the dam will cause problems; first because it is big. So is the pipeline. So is Elmendorf. So are the Usibeli coal mines near Healy. So what?
Second claim is that dams will reduce salmon runs in the Susitna River. This is an out an out lie, as this dam sits well above spawning grounds for salmon.
Third, they claim that the dam will create a 40-mile long lake. Great, 40 miles of new shoreline for chasing lake trout, grayling and rainbow trout. What a cool place to put in a canoe or a float tube. They claim that it will trash hunting opportunities in Game Management Unit 13. Yet the majority of land proposed for the lake is privately held, meaning there is no hunting there without permission today.
They move smartly into an argument based on the habitat destruction of multiple open pit mines and overall habitat devastation. I suppose that argument can be made for every single thing you build – from an outhouse to a new artificial lake. The cost benefit analysis we need to make is creating this new project in a remote part of the state worth what we get out of it – reliable, renewable, clean and cheap electricity for a century or loss of a marginally productive unused habitat for a few tens of hunters. In my mind, the needs of half the population of the state are a reasonable tradeoff. Note that the wildlife on the land inundated by water will be slowly chased off by the rising lake. They will not be killed. They will provide additional opportunities for hunting as the lake fills. The opposition provides no numbers to support their claims. Either do I.
The next argument is the earthquake hazard from the Denali fault, which moved 10 meters in the 7.9 Richter earthquake in 2002. This argument presupposes that humans are singularly unable to construct structures that can withstand known forces – namely an earthquake history. Note that in 2010 Chile suffered an 8.8 Richter earthquake that did not damage or collapse any of the mines or dams in Chile. If you build properly, you can survive a large damaging quake. This is simple engineering. Perhaps the opponents do not believe in structural engineering.
Finally, they make an argument against hydroelectric energy by pointing to wind, tidal and natural gas from Cook Inlet and the North Slope. This is specious nonsense, as wind and tidal are inconstant electrical generation sources. In Great Britain during the last two winters, wind has produced around 3% of rated capacity during the coldest parts of the winter. It is notoriously unreliable as Chugach Electric Association members and CIRI are about to find out on Fire Island. As to tidal energy, it will be difficult to install any sort of rotating machinery in Cook Inlet for electrical generation as long as the belugas are listed as endangered species. And all workups of natural gas from the North Slope show prices double to triple current natural gas prices via various bullet line proposals.
The Susitna Dam is a rational response to energy needs of the Railbelt. It is a resurrection of a concept from 25 years ago that has been right sized to current energy needs. It ought to be pursued as a reasonable and logical solution to our electrical energy needs.
The Chugach Board of Directors from 2007 to 2010 spearheaded it. I was one of that group. The new IBEW dominated Board is too busy lining their pockets with meeting fees paid by the membership to advocate for its construction. Perhaps if they were doing their jobs rather than riding on the membership dime they would.