Harvard Study: $500 Billion Full Cost of Coal

by Kert Davies

February 16, 2011

smoke stack

UPDATE: Here’s a link to download the entire Harvard report: Full Cost Accounting for the Full Lifecycle of Coal.

People and the environment are paying the price while corporations reap the profits.

Today in Boston, on the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, we hosted a preview of a remarkable study soon to be published, authored by Dr. Paul Epstein, Director of Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment.

Epstein and eleven 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 results. The team used peer-reviewed studies already in the literature to assign costs to the various impacts. The study will be published shortly in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

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.”

Reuters coverage of the Harvard study “Coal’s hidden costs top $345 billion in U.S.-study

ClimateProgress also headlines the story “Life-cycle study: Accounting for total harm from coal would add “close to 17.8/kWh of electricity generated

In other words, this study lays out in great detail the costs the coal industrial complex is NOT PAYING and society and the earth ARE PAYING!

Half a trillion dollars is not a small number. Consider headlines this week about the President’s budget and budget deficit. And this Harvard study is a conservative estimate of the true costs of coal.

The paper details all the factors that are not quantifiable like lost work time when a mother has to take her child with to the doctor for an asthma attack or the cost to a family for the lost of a loved one or wage earner.

“The monetizable 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.”

The abstract of the of paper tells the whole story:

Each stage in the life cycle of coalextraction, transport, processing, and combustiongenerates 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.

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. The conclusion? The cost of coal fired electricity would double or quadruple if these “external” costs were included on our electricity bills, raising the per kilowatt price by 9-27 cents. That’s a far different story than the coal propaganda machine are telling with their advertising for clean, cheap, abundant coal.

Maybe President Obama and his team should take a look at this study before they write the next speech praising “clean coal.”

For more information on Greenpeace’s Quit Coal campaign, listen to the stream of the latest Greenpeace Radio podcast episode.

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