21 Feb 2011

Coal’s health costs at least $140 billion per year: ‘heads in the sand’

Written by aspowell

How many credible studies will it take before elected officials and regulators acknowledge that coal has a quantifiable, net negative, impact on the health of human beings and the U.S. economy?

The latest study, from the Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment does a credible and persuasive job of estimating the costs: between $140 billion and $242 billion a year.

Image courtesy of Climate Voices

“We really don’t appreciate the public health dimension of what this is costing us,” said Dr. Paul Epstein, lead author of the study and a public health expert at Harvard Medical School. “I think we’ve been sticking our heads into the sand.”

Add to this estimated annual cost to what one of the authors estimates is the additional, UNaccounted costs and the estimated total costs rise to $500 billion. That’s right $500 billion.

One coal lobby was quick to push back.  In its rebuttal to The New York Times, the Alliance  for Clean Coal Electricity did not offer any countervailing evidence. An email to the Alliance media shop by TheEnergyFix has gone unanswered.

It’s helpful to note the study was not about the health effects of clean coal. It’s about the impacts traditional, dirty, coal. If coal were in fact “clean,” there would be less of a need for studies such has this one from Harvard. The fact remains that traditional coal pollutes the air and water in ways that studies such as Harvard’s are illuminating.

Dr. Paul Epstein. Image courtesy of Harvard Medical School.

Let’s be realistic. As long as the American political system runs on the most moneyed interests, the unfortunate – some would say tragic – reality of coal’s power will maintain its preferential status. While its market share of about 50% of the electricity generated throughout most of the U.S. is not likely to wane anytime soon, there is a compelling case for more tangible steps to reduce America’s, and the world’s reliance traditional coal, along with other fossil fuels.

Are lawmakers prepared and courageous enough to rise to the challenge? How can theyigore the shortened life spans of coal miners and deaths from coal mine accidents?

We know the answer to the question is: not yet. So how about this: a collection of states such as California, Oregon, Massachusetts and New York could share the analysis needed to impose a fee or tax on electricity generated by traditional coal. (Iowa already has a similar tax on oil and natural gas to fund renewable energy programs.)

The difference between electricity generated by traditional coal and other, carbon-free, sources of energy — including clean coal — could be invested back into their state’s clean energy economies. To kick things off, a large Foundation could jump start the effort. A couple of nominees: The Energy Foundation and The Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

About half the states already have requirements for electricity from renewable sources. And several states in the Northeast are trying to keep a regional carbon-emission trading system alive. But some of the requirements stand little chance of being achieved. And the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is not succeeding in demonstrating that a carbon-trading scheme can work sustainably.

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