In a groundbreaking article to be released this month in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, details the economic, health and environmental costs associated with each stage in the life cycle of coal – extraction, transportation, processing, and combustion. These costs, between a third to over half a trillion dollars annually, are directly passed on to the public.
In terms of human health, the report estimates $74.6 billion a year in public health burdens in Appalachian communities, with a majority of the impact resulting from increased healthcare costs, injury and death. Emissions of air pollutants account for $187.5 billion, mercury impacts as high as $29.3 billion, and climate contributions from combustion between $61.7 and $205.8 billion. Heavy metal toxins and carcinogens released during processing pollute water and food sources and are linked to long-term health problems. Mining, transportation, and combustion of coal contribute to poor air quality and respiratory disease, while the risky nature of mining coal results in death and injury for workers.
That’s from a news release for the important new study, “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.” Dr. Epstein is the lead author, and there are 10 coauthors, public health and environment experts.
We’ve known for a long time that coal is a costly and deadly energy source. In “The Toll from Coal,” The American Lung Association found that coal-powered electricity alone caused “over 13,000 premature deaths in 2010, as well as almost 10,000 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks per year.”
Our comprehensive review finds that the best estimate for the total economically quantifiable costs, based on a conservative weighting of many of the study findings, amount to some $345.3 billion, adding close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated from coal. The low estimate is $175 billion, or over 9¢/kWh, while the true monetizable costs could be as much as the upper bounds of $523.3 billion, adding close to 26.89¢/kWh. These and the more difficult to quantify externalities are borne by the general public.
Our analysis also suggests that the proposed measure to address one of the emissions—CO2, via CCS—is costly and carries numerous health and environmental risks, which would be multiplied if CCS were deployed on a wide scale. The combination of new technologies and the “energy penalty” will, conservatively, almost double the costs to operate the utility plants. In addition, questions about the reserves of economically recoverable coal in the United States carry implications for future investments into coal-related infrastructure.