Full Cost of Coal $500 Billion/Year in U.S., Harvard Study Finds

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Well, it doesn’t seem like Harvard Medical School will be getting any donations from the fossil fuel industry any time soon. A new study that is soon to be released and published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences authored by Dr. Paul Epstein, the Director of Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment, and eleven other co-authors have complied a first of its kind “Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal,” tracking the multiple human health and environmental impacts of coal from mining to transport to combustion in coal power plants, and the waste stream that accompanies it.

So, what did they find?

The Harvard paper estimates that “the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually.” This study lays out in detail the costs the coal industry is NOT PAYING and what everyone else IS PAYING! The paper details all the factors that are not quantifiable, like lost work time when a mother has to take her child to the doctor for an asthma attack or the cost to a family for the loss of a loved one or wage earner.

The paper finds:

Each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment. These costs are external to the coal industry and thus are often considered as “externalities.” We estimate that the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually. Many of these so-called externalities are, moreover, cumulative. Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of non fossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive. We focus on Appalachia, though coal is mined in other regions of the United States and is burned throughout the world.

Half a trillion dollars is a large amount and this Harvard study is a conservative estimate of the true costs of coal. “The  impacts found are damages due to climate change; public health damages from NOx, SO2, PM2.5, and mercury emissions; fatalities of members of the public due to rail accidents during coal transport; the public health burden in Appalachia associated with coal mining; government subsidies; and lost value of abandoned mine lands.”

This study sets a new benchmark for a discussion of energy choices in this country.  In addition to the lump sum costs, the paper breaks down what these ‘external’ costs borne by society would add to the cost of coal fired electricity, which would be roughly 9 –27 cents per kilowatt hour. Of course this will be argued by Big Coal as false information and they will probably run a few commercials telling everyone how clean, cheap and abundant coal is in the United States. That doesn’t change the facts, though.


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