Damage from Coal Costs US Economy More than the Electricity it Generates is Worth: New Study


Photo: Jen SFO-BCN via Flickr/CC BY

I was out on vacation last week, but I still caught wind of the new headline-making study Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy. The study, which was published in the prestigious journal the American Economic Review, caused quite a stir in green circles, and for good reason -- the authors found that mining and burning coal actually imposes more costs on the economy than the value it creates by generating power. It's hard to find a sexy way to frame this wonky-seeming finding, but it is absolutely huge. It means that continuing to rely on coal does more damage to our economy than good. And forget, for a second, about the health risks and sullied natural habitats -- this is strictly economically speaking.Grist's Dave Roberts explains:

Coal's net economic effects on the U.S. are poorly understood, to say the least, and this paper's findings are stunning.

Once you strip away the econ jargon, the paper finds that electricity from coal imposes more damages on the U.S. economy than the electricity is worth. That's right: Coal-fired power is a net value-subtracting industry. A parasite, you might say. A gigantic, blood-sucking parasite that's enriching a few executives and shareholders at the public's expense.

It should also be noted that the authors of the paper are not in any way related to environmental activism. They're actually conservative-leaning economists who happened to do the calculus for the cost of coal (and other sources of pollution) on the economy, and ended with surprising results.

Commentators are already suggesting that their stunning findings -- which include the fact that coal imposes over $53 billion in damages to the US economy every year -- may be conservative estimates.

These damages, which are absorbed by the public, by folks like you and me, hit nearly every segment of the economy: air pollution from coal plants causes sickness, chronic illnesses, and death -- which saddles the public with steep health care costs and millions of missed work days. Cleaning up the devastated mining sites and toxic waste streams adds to the cost, as does the decline in tourism where mountains have been blown off to make extracting coal 'cheaper'.

But as this study shows, no matter how you mine it, coal costs more in damages to other segments of the economy than all of the electricity it generates is worth. In other words, coal is a huge loser. A huge, expensive loser.

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