“Clean coal.” “Cheap coal.” These marketer-born terms make coal sound like an unbeatable resource for a country that’s still dealing with recession and recovery. But a new study from a Harvard researcher blows them both out of the water.
According to Paul Epstein’s“Full Cost Accounting For the Life Cycle Of Coal,” our heavy reliance on coal costs the United States $500 billion annually. Those costs are largely indirect – but they are quite significant:
First, public health costs. In Appalachian communities alone, health care, deaths, and injuries from coal mining and transporting cost $74 billion per year. Beyond Appalachia, the health costs of cancer, lung disease, and respiratory illnesses related to pollutant emissions totals $187.5 billion per year. According to Climate Progress, processing coal releases heavy metal toxins and
carcinogens which in turn may lead to long-term health problems. The American Lung Association reports on a study finding that coal-powered electricity caused over 13,000 premature deaths in 2010.
Beyond health problems, add the cost of coal’s effect on land use, energy consumption, and food prices, plus the cost of toxic waste spills and cleanup… $500 billion. “And this is an underestimate,” reports Epstein. He concludes, “The public is unfairly paying for the impacts of coal use. Accounting for these ‘hidden costs’ doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh, making wind, solar, and other renewable very economically competitive.”
Epstein told Treehugger that the U.S. “needs to phase out coal rapidly.”