Planned pipeline to supply electricity to Donlin Mine could have impacts from the YK Delta to Cook Inlet


If built, the Donlin Gold Mine Project in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta would be one of the largest open-pit gold mines in the world. Energy would be supplied by a gas pipeline stretching hundreds of kilometres across the state to Cook Inlet.

Sage Smiley of KYUK and Riley Board of KDLL have teamed up on both ends of this potential pipeline to tell this story.

Mile 315 – Crooked Creek

In the hills outside the village of Crooked Creek in the middle of the Kuskokwim River there is gold – an estimated 34 million ounces of gold, the weight of five large blue whales.

It will take a lot of work to get it out of the ground.

Kristina Woolston is vice president of external relations for Donlin Gold, which plans to develop the mine. She explained the mining process during a meeting of the Alaska Senate Resources Committee in early April.

“Donlin Gold is a refractory ore, which means it contains microscopic particles – arsenopyrite and some pyrite. So it requires a very energy-intensive process to extract the gold,” Woolston explained. “We will process about 59,000 tonnes a day – that requires a huge amount of energy.”

The Donlin Gold Project property is located on land owned by Alaska Native Corporations established under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971. Surface rights are held by Kuskokwim Corporation and subsurface rights are held by the regional Calista Corporation.

Thom Leonard is vice president of corporate affairs at Calista. He said the project went through several ideas on how to operate such a difficult-to-access site.

“One of the first ideas for the project was that it was so remote – obviously Donlin had to transport everything in barges, not just building materials but fuel, diesel fuel for all the equipment, and power and heat,” Leonard said.

Krysti Shallenberger



But fears about a possible increase in barge traffic led to resistance among communities along the Kuskokwim.

“We heard from shareholders and residents all along the Kusko, 'Hey, a lot of barge owners were concerned about this.' So we reminded Donlin of those comments,” Leonard said. “They went back through everything and said, 'Hey, we can look at building a natural gas pipeline. And that will cut the number of barge owners on the river in half.' So we took the comments from people who have concerns or are opposed to the project and learned from them.”

The project is supported by many people in the village of Crooked Creek, which is less than 20 kilometers from the proposed mine site, as well as by the Calista Corporation.

But many other people in the YK Delta are still not entirely happy with the plan, even if the proposed boat traffic is reduced. In recent years, many traditional Indian councils and organizations have withdrawn their support for the project due to various environmental concerns.

“It distorts our traditional values ​​to fit the mold of a corporate infrastructure,” said Sophie Swope, executive director of Mother Kuskokwim, a nonprofit tribal consortium founded in 2022 as a countermovement to the Donlin project.

“The fact that there is a [315]The 1-mile pipeline from Cook Inlet to Crooked Creek will go past a lot of streams, and we don't know how many of those streams actually have fish in them,” Swope said. “And I think that's a big shortcoming.”

Alaska Department of Oil and Gas

The proposed route of the natural gas pipeline that would supply power to the Donlin gold mine was submitted to the State of Alaska in late 2013.

Mile 0 – Cook Inlet

In the Cook Inlet region, the discussion is more about the price of natural gas, particularly what will happen to residential utility costs when Donlin starts buying up the gas.

Donlin says his pipeline will use about 20 billion cubic feet of natural gas annually. To put that number in perspective, that's about the amount of gas every single residential household in the state uses in a year.

That demand concerns energy consultant Mark Foster. Foster wrote a report for the Homer-based environmental nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper on Donlin's potential impact on electricity prices.

His conclusion: Donlin's proposed energy use could increase rates for Southcentral customers by $265 per year.

That's because Donlin would buy gas from Cook Inlet, which is already a hot topic as utilities threaten to expire their gas contracts and lawmakers rush to propose policy solutions.

“The Donlin mine has a large natural gas demand based on the documentation it provides to potential investors, and that demand, if it came from local Cook Inlet gas, would be a significant block of demand,” Foster said. “Given the limited reserves we see on the horizon, one can imagine that their demand would drive the price up significantly.”

But not everyone agrees with Foster's report. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner John Boyle said it's premature to worry about Donlin's demand if utilities can't fulfill their contracts in the short term.

“Given that existing demand is not projected to be met by future supply – absent new investment, new drilling and new production – it is fanciful or, I guess, illogical to believe that the Donlin Mine will somehow be able to come in, release over 20 billion cubic feet worth of gas and only exacerbate the overall energy supply imbalance.”

Boyle agrees that Donlin would use a lot of gas. But he believes it would drive up prices down. He said industrial customers such as mines tend to provide stability to local utilities.

“The more demand they have from industrial – and also private – consumers, the better they can cover and distribute those costs,” Boyle said. “The more costs those industrial consumers bear, the lower the cost to each individual consumer.”

According to the DNR, members of the Golden Valley Electric Association in Fairbanks saw their electric bills cut by 7% after the Fort Knox Mine came online. And it said electric customers in Juneau have saved $70 million since 2009 thanks to the Hecla Greens Creek Mine's investment in hydroelectric power. These figures come from the Alaska Miners Association.

During the Senate Resources Committee meeting in April, Woolston and Donlin said they believe the mine will have a positive impact on the gas market, but Donlin shares the same concerns about Cook Inlet gas as the utilities and the state.

“So, like everyone else, we are anxiously watching the supply in Cook Inlet and seeing what the solution will be,” Woolston said.

The Cook Inlet natural gas storage facility in Kenai, operated by Enstar, in March 2024.
The Cook Inlet natural gas storage facility in Kenai, operated by Enstar, in March 2024.

The lawsuit

The pipeline is not yet a done deal – its approval is being challenged in a civil case currently before the Alaska Supreme Court.

The state granted a right-of-way permit in 2021 for the pipeline, which crosses about 200 miles of state land.

But four tribes from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region – the Orutsararmiut Native Council, Chevak Native Village, Native Village of Eek and Native Village of Kwigillingok – as well as the conservation group Cook Inletkeeper are fighting back in court.

“Unless you look at the entire project, you won't really understand the impact on the public interest,” says Olivia Glasscock, an attorney with Earthjustice, which represents the four tribes and the environmental nonprofit.

The lawsuit's main argument is that the state only considered the pipeline itself when approving the pipeline, not the impacts of the entire project. Glasscock said the two issues are inextricably linked.

“What they missed is the fact that the pipeline – the use of state land – is intended for this major project at the end,” Glasscock said. “There is no other use intended for the pipeline. It is only intended to be maintained for the life of the mine. It would not be built if the mine was not operating. There are no other projects planned related to this pipeline, even though it provides additional capacity.”

Oral arguments in the case before the Alaska Supreme Court are scheduled for late July.