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Community Perspective

UAF has a big role in Alaska’s extraction industries

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The University of Alaska Fairbanks is under strain. Yes, there is less money in the state and a need to reduce expenses, but there is also a need to help Alaska, and academic institutions like UAF can do this.

For example, there is a lot of talk about what could be characterized as “Star Trek” technology to stop global warming and create a brave new green world. But unfortunately it is going to take many years, if not decades, to get some of these technologies going without ruining the economy. Certainly during this long transition we will need to continue to extract minerals from the ground, including in such places as ANWR, above Bristol Bay and in Ambler.

Minerals are not just the lifeblood of Alaska’s economy but of the world’s economy, too. Even renewable energy technology uses these minerals to create necessary inputs from batteries to solar panels, but, paradoxically, when you conduct mining projects with electric engine technology, it can cause minerals production to cost several times more than by mining using oil-based technologies such as diesel trucks. So, just to be able to mine more cheaply, you may need more oil, not less.

Given the fact that minerals extraction is necessary in Alaska, then we need to ensure they are extracted cleanly. Due to differences in climate and other factors, however, Alaska may need slight or even radically different technologies to extract minerals here than would be used in Arizona or Australia. We must be cognizant of the need to adapt technologies or pioneer new ones, which means having a research university with good extractive industries programs.

Most people believe that a university is only about students, but it is also about regional needs. Many students actually do not know what they are going to do after college, and more than that, they often see new things at the university that strikes their interest and that makes them change their career goals, including looking into extractive industry careers. Not only will a student see an intriguing class listing, but they also will see a research presentation, a project, or poster on technology that will spark their interest and entice them into Alaska’s important extractive industries trades.

Moreover, having a good department of mining engineering, petroleum engineering or other extractive specialty departments can create a central clearinghouse for aggregating new technologies. The professors will author books to add to the literature, bring in specialists to deliver seminars, or write journal articles that explain important factors unique to extraction in Alaska. They can even show ways to save caribou herds and still produce oil, save salmon fisheries and still produce molybdenum, and have environmentally benign roads. Working with biologists helps make the technologies safe, linguists help integrate Alaska’s industries with the rest of the world, and many other departments are out there that help Alaska extractive industries and other potential industries. A university that is healthy and ready to meet these needs ensures the entire state reaps the benefits.

While UAF administration is now forced to think solely in terms of student credit hours and funding, there is a larger view of Alaska’s overall economy and needs that must be taken into account. And the citizens of our state need to realize the important benefits the university can provide. We do not just give education to our state; we give insights and knowledge. For example, there has been much work for improving roads in permafrost areas by adding heat extraction fins, which are in place on the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Researchers have analyzed how quickly ice roads can be constructed on the North Slope after freeze-up to improve and lengthen the exploration season while at the same time keeping the permafrost ground intact. This provides lasting benefits and reaps dividends year after year. Without UAF, these improvements may never have occurred.

When Prudhoe Bay’s pipeline’s environmental impact statement was written, there was much concern about earthquakes in the Interior, even though most large earthquakes are south of Thompson Pass, but probably too little concern for how tankers like the Exxon Valdez would navigate out of Prince William Sound. Similarly, now we rightly worry about a herd of caribou but do not consider quite so closely conflicts in the Middle East that can affect the our nation’s economic security. These are the kinds of issues that UAF can help look at more scientifically, provide research and find solutions. Researchers and professors are good at finding the big picture and working on solutions. Let them continue to do their work.

Doug Reynolds is a professor of petroleum and energy economics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He can be contacted at dbreynolds@alaska.edu.

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