New Harvard study: Fully accounting for coal’s environmental impacts would triple its costs

February 16, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

The Boston Globe’s GreenBlog has an item out today about a new study from the Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. Here’s how reporter Beth Daley summarizes it:

By now, we all know coal’s climate change reputation: Power plants that burn it release enormous amounts of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

But a new report released today by the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School looks deeper at the full cost of coal, following its life cycle from exploration, through transportation, processing, and burning to estimate that coal is costing the U.S. one-third to over one-half a trillion dollars annually. The report was released aboard the Arctic Sunrise at Rowe’s Wharf, Greenpeace’s chartered icebreaker.

The report, being published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, notes that fully accounting for these costs would double to triple the price of electricity from coal, thus making wind, solar, and other forms of renewable energy far more competitive.

I’ve posted a summary of the Harvard study here.

5 Responses to “New Harvard study: Fully accounting for coal’s environmental impacts would triple its costs”

  1. Tony Turley says:

    I know studies can be made to say anything we want, but I’d be surprised if this one gets more than a passing glance. I’m guessing it will be seen as just another attack on business by the “liberal elite”.


  2. Thomas Rodd says:

    This Harvard Report is another salvo in the “war on coal” being waged by a wide and growing spectrum of well-educated and influential people who have concluded (correctly) that unless humankind starts very soon to substantially reduce atmospheric carbon emissions from coal burning, our children and grandchildren will live on a quite different and very inhospitable planet.

    My guess is that if it were not for this perfectly understandable planet-saving motive, these well-educated and influential people would not really give much of a darn about the well-being of streams in Boone County, etc. — much less about the health of the people there. They certainly haven’t done so for the more than one hundred years that they have happily used Appalachian coal, etc. to build their civilization.

    My late pal the hydrogeologist Richard diPretoro visited some German deep mines twenty years ago and he told me their cost to put the coal on the ground — with health and safety and environment, etc., all much more factored into the cost of mining than is the case here — was $180 per ton.

    Because the first casualty in war is typically the truth, I imagine that there is some exaggeration and other weakness in the figures put out in this report — but that issue will be debated, and that is good.

    To be fair, there are all sorts of “costs” in any form of technology. How about the tens of thousands of car accidents people have when driving to work, are they factored into the “cost” of products made by those people?

    Nevertheless, this “war on coal” report appears to make some very strong and sound actuarial points on the true “costs” of this form of energy, when comparing it to other forms of energy.

    More importantly, the Hardvard Report exemplifies the searing criticism and opposition that the coal industry is going to face in ever-increasing amounts — for the rest of our lives and beyond — due to the climate change/global warming problem. That criticism and opposition is only going to get heavier and heavier.

    My personal thought is that the coal owners and miners and haulers and burners would do well to cut a deal, sooner rather than later, to start reducing emissions now — by means of national climate policy legislation and global treaties.

    That would help take the heat off and allow people to make real plans, not just delay change to keep short-term profits flowing. It would improve our political cimate in the coalfields a lot, too.

    I believe this deal will happen, too, sooner than some people expect.

    Of course, I could be wrong, but I like the Byrd motto that Ken likes to feature –“Embrace the Future!”

    What do others think?

  3. Dave Bassage says:

    Very well put, Tom. The only thing I would add is a strong concern that the current political climate does not bode well for tackling the climate change problem we both agree is vital to our future.

    The climate naysayers have succeeded in convincing a huge chunk of the U.S. population that global warming is “just a theory” and something we’re all free to “believe in” or not. As if fundamental physics are as much of a personal choice as Democrat or Republican.

    The Tea Party movement scoffs at environmental issues in general and climate change in particular. And while the move toward federal budget fiscal conservancy is long overdue, and a strong case can be made that ultimately addressing climate change will save us far more than it will cost us, that sort of logic doesn’t get very far in Congress right now.

    I do share your optimism that sooner or later national energy strategy will point in the right direction, although I may not be quite as confident that course change will happen sooner rather than later.

    I hope I’m wrong on that!

  4. Thomas Rodd says:

    Dave Bassage — I agree with you.

    My “optimism” flows from (1) being a grandfather; and (2) events like the incredible change in Egypt. Pete Seeger has a saying about adding teaspoon after teaspoon of sand to one side of a balance (like a see-saw) — with a lot of sand spilling and having no effect. Then, all of a sudden, when the weight is finally just a little greater on the side that you have been adding sand to, the balance tips all of a sudden and “dramatically.” The forces for climate policy legislation, including rich and powerful corporations and capitalists and us ordinary folks, are adding more and more to the change side every day.

    “We’ll see that day come round!”

  5. Alan Gregory says:

    I have now lived for 20 years on the edge of the middle anthracite field in northeastern Pennsylvania. The land around the cities of Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton has been so trashed by mining that few folks know what it once looked like. Old-timers in Hazleton still revel in the fact that the movie The Molly Maguires, starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris, was made just outside the city.

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