Coal's hidden costs top $345 billion in U.S.: study
Feb 27, 2011 - Scott Malone - Reuters
BOSTON (Reuters) - The United States' reliance on
coal to generate almost half of its electricity,
costs the economy about $345 billion a year in
hidden expenses not borne by miners or utilities,
including health problems in mining communities
and pollution around power plants, a study found.
Those costs would effectively triple the price of
electricity produced by coal-fired plants, which
are prevalent in part due to the their low cost of
operation, the study led by a Harvard University
"This is not borne by the coal industry, this
is borne by us, in our taxes," said Paul Epstein,
a Harvard Medical School instructor and the associate
director of its Center for Health and the Global
Environment, the study's lead author.
"The public cost is far greater than the cost
of the coal itself. The impacts of this industry
go way beyond just lighting our lights."
Coal-fired plants currently supply about 45 percent
of the nation's electricity, according to U.S. Energy
Department data. Accounting for all the ancillary
costs associated with burning coal would add about
18 cents per kilowatt hour to the cost of electricity
from coal-fired plants, shifting it from one of the
cheapest sources of electricity to one of the most
In the year that ended in November, the average
retail price of electricity in the United States
was about 10 cents per kilowatt hour, according to
the Energy Department.
Advocates of coal power have argued that it is among
the cheapest of fuel sources available in the United
States, allowing for lower-cost power than that provided
by the developing wind and solar industries.
"The Epstein article ignores the substantial
benefits of coal in maintaining lower energy prices
for American families and businesses," said
Lisa Camooso Miller, a spokeswoman for the American
Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry
group. "Lower energy prices are linked to a
higher standard of living and better health."
HEALTH, ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS
The estimate of hidden costs takes into account
a variety of side-effects of coal production and
use. Among them are the cost of treading elevated
rates of cancer and other illnesses in coal-mining
areas, environmental damage and lost tourism opportunities
in coal regions where mountaintop removal is practiced
and climate change resulting from elevated emissions
of carbon dioxide from burning the coal.
Coal releases more carbon dioxide when burned than
does natural gas or oil.
The $345 billion annual cost figure was the study's
best estimate of the costs associated with burning
coal. The study said the costs could be as low as
$175 billion or as high as $523 billion.
"This is effectively a subsidy borne by asthmatic
children and rain-polluted lakes and the climate
is another way of looking at it," said Kert
Davies, research director with the environmental
activist group Greenpeace. "It's a tax by the
industry on us that we are not seeing in our bills
but we are bearing the costs."
The estimates came in the paper "Full cost
accounting for the life cycle of coal," to be
published in the Annals of the New York Academy of
Sciences. Epstein discussed his findings on the Arctic
Sunrise, a 164-foot-long (50 meter long) icebreaker
operated by Greenpeace, and moored in Boston Harbor.
Leading users of coal in the United States include
utilities American Electric Power Co Inc and Duke
Energy Corp. The top producers include miners Arch
Coal Inc, Consol Energy Inc, Peabody Energy Corp
and Alpha Natural Resources.
(Reporting by Scott Malone, editing by Maureen Bavdek)