Coal’s Unpaid Bills: $345 Billion Annually
March 2, 2011
recent report estimates that coal’s impacts – including its effects on health
and the damage in inflicts on the environment -- cost the U.S. about $345 billion annually. According to the
report, a full rendering of coal’s costs would double to triple the price of coal-generated
true cost of coal would show wind, solar, and other carbon-free, clean forms of
power to be economically competitive.
The report was written by Paul Epstein, M.D., M.P.H. Associate
Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical
School, and a team of coauthors.
“externalized costs” of coal are real, but they are not paid by coal or utility
companies and don’t show up in the price we pay for electricity. Rather, we pay for externalities when we buy health
care and insurance, when we pay for environmental clean-ups, and when we
calculate the value of environmental assets spoiled, days lost from school and
work, and lives lost prematurely.
of PSR’s report Coal’s
Assault on Human Health will be familiar with the impacts of coal, especially in regard
to health impacts of air pollutants.
Epstein’s report goes several steps farther, examining in detail a wider
range of coal’s effects and then quantifying them. Here’s a sampling:
- Health effects of underground mining: These include accidents, both fatal and
nonfatal, and black lung disease (pneumoconiosis), which leads to chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease, is the primary illness in underground coal
miners. According to the report, in the 1990s, over 10,000 former U.S. miners
died from coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, and the prevalence has more than
doubled since 1995.
- Mountaintop removal (MTR) and climate change: Besides reporting the amount of greenhouse
gases emitted by coal over its life cycle, the report calculates that those emissions
increase by up to 17% when the greenhouse gases released by deforestation and
land transformation from MTR are included.
- Coal transport:
The report notes that 70% of U.S.
rail traffic is devoted to transporting coal, creating are strains on railroad
cars and lines, and increasing lost-opportunity costs, given the great need for
public transport throughout the nation.
The report also builds on the ground-breaking research of coauthor
Michael Hendryx, who correlated levels of coal mining and health and economic
well-being in Appalachia. It notes that
in Appalachia, as levels of mining increase, so do poverty and unemployment
rates, while educational attainment rates and household income levels decline.
Once the health, environmental and social impacts are
quantified, they are “monetized,” with a societal price tag attached to
each. For example, the study prices out
the costs to society of coal’s contributions to climate change. Using an estimate of the carbon dioxide and CO2-equivalents released from coal-derived
power (including black carbon, CO2 and N2O emissions from
combustion, land disturbance in MTR, and methane leakage from mines), they
derive a cost of $63.9 billion dollars.
A broader examination of the costs of
climate change would also encompass the potential collapse of ecosystems, such
as coral reefs and widespread forest and crop losses.
into account the multiple variables that they review, the study estimates the
economically quantifiable costs of coal at one-third to over one-half
of a trillion dollars annually. The
authors add, “These and the more difficult to quantify externalities are borne
by the general public.”