1 Nov 2011

Two ‘trees’ fall in the ‘forest’ about costs, risks of mining, burning coal to generate electricity

Written by Jim Pierobon

Each additional study and court ruling read more convincing than those that preceded them. The cost of burning coal is doing even more harm to human health, the environment and worker safety than was previously documentable. But will they — together — persuade policymakers to quicken moves toward a lower-carbon energy future?

The latest credible study comes from the professors at Yale University and Middlebury College and was published recently The American Economic Review. The main finding by co-authors Nicholas Z. Muller, Robert Mendelsohn and William Nordhaus in “Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy” is that oil and coal-fired power plants, along with other industrial processes, have a “Gross External Damage” (GED) larger than their value added by relatively low prices to consumers.

While many economists, policymakers and environmental advocates have known this for years — and are supported by previous studies — this effort presents a formal framework that builds  environmental costs, or “externalities,”  into a national accounting system. It quantifies the marginal damages of air pollution emissions for the U.S. and multiplies them times the quantity of emissions by industry to compute the GED score. The largest industrial contributor to external costs? You guessed it:  coal-fired electric generation, whose damages range from 0.8 to 5.6 times value added by relatively low consumer prices.

How is it that to date, no national U.S. statistical agency has linked pollution damages to industries? Even natural gas-only companies, which have their own negative GED score to deal with, would emerge from such an accounting heads-and-shoulders above coal and oil.

Artist's rendering of Hughie Stover (left) and his attorney at his trail on charges stemming from the deaths of 29 workers in 2010 at the Upper Branch Mine in West Virginia. CREDIT: WVNS-TV in West Virginia.

Combine this study with the first conviction resulting from the first trial over the 2010 Upper Branch Mine coal explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 workers and you have a potent reminder of the costs, risks and damages of America’s reliance on coal-fired power generation.

The former mine security chief at the Upper Branch Mine, Hughie Elbert Stover, was found guilty October 27 of lying to investigators. Prosecutors tell news reporters in West Virginia that nothing is off the table regarding possible charges for others who coworkers and family members assert are complicit in the commitment of “industrial homicide.”

According to the Associated Press, it took jurors about six hours to find Stover guilty on the lying charge and a second count of seeking to destroy thousands of security-related documents following the explosion. Stover, who had pleaded innocent, is the only person charged thus far. But state and federal investigations continue.

Signs dating back to the sale of Massey Energy Co. to Alpha Natural Resources earlier this year and the stinging critique of Massey’s coal operations (The Energy Fix, May, 19, 2011) point toward more charges and possible convictions.

How many “trees” need to fall before enough people act?

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