It's almost as though Saudi Arabia - already dripping rich from oil exports - were to find great quantities of diamond deposits in its deserts.
Alaska, with its ever-widening bonanza of revenue-developing oil reserves, has coal - tons and tons of it. Industry analysts say it can become the major exporter of US Western states' coal by 1990. According to an official of the International Energy Information Center in Washington, D.C., coal exports from the 50th state - not now a coal exporter at all - will total 13 million tons annually within eight years. This will amount to one-half of the 25 million tons estimated to be shipped out from the Western US at that time.
Alaskan coal, analysts say, can become an important factor in the country's exports for several reasons:
* Its southern Beluga deposits lie only about 100 miles from ocean-loading ports. In contrast, stateside deposits in the underground and strip-mining regions of Colorado, Utah, Montana, and Wyoming need time-consuming and costly long-distance transport to reach West Coast shipping facilities.
* Shipping from Alaska to the Orient takes less time en route than ocean transportation from lower West Coast ports.
* Much of the existing production of mountain states coal is prorogued domestically under long-term contracts to nearby public utilities. This limits the potential for export expansion.
* Future Alaskan coal for export could probably land in Pacific Rim countries cheaper than from other Western states. That is only if slurry lines, still under consideration, are not built from mountain states' mining fields to Pacific ocean ports, which would reduce overall production expense in the long run.