Harvard Study Details Coal's True Costs

Charleston Gazette
16 February 2011
By Ken Ward Jr.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fully accounting for coal's costs in environmental and public health damage would triple the cost of coal-generated electricity and make less-polluting fuels more competitive, according to a new study by Harvard University researchers.

The study, by the Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment, is scheduled to be published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Researchers tried to take a broader look at the full cost of coal, following its life cycle from mining and processing, to transportation and burning. They estimated that coal is costing the U.S. between $174 billion and $523 billion a year.

"Coal carries a heavy burden," the researchers said in a summary of their detailed publication.

"Energy is essential to our daily lives, and for the past century and a half we have depended on fossil fuels to produce it," they said. "But, from extraction to combustion, coal, oil and natural gas have multiple health, environmental and economic impacts that are proving costly for society."

The researchers put their "best" estimates of costs from coal's annual air pollution at $188 billion and costs from its contributions to global warming at $62 billion.

Researchers also examined deaths from coal-mining accidents and $74 billion a year in early deaths that other studies by West Virginia University have said appear to be linked to pollution from coal-mining sites. They also looked at economic subsidies for coal, deaths from coal-hauling railroad accidents, and a host of other impacts.

The study was funded in part by the Rockefeller Family Foundation, and was being promoted by a news release issued by the group Greenpeace.

"The public is unfairly paying for the impacts of coal use," said Dr. Paul Epstein, associated director of the Harvard center.

"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 said. "Policy-makers need to evaluate current energy options with these types of impacts in mind. Our reliance on fossil fuels is proving costly for society, negatively impacting our wallets and our quality of life."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.