Internalizing the External Costs of Coal

Coal is cheap and dangerous to the environment. (Photo: thewritingzone [CC by SA-2.0]/Flickr)

Coal is cheap.

Or so the coal lobby would like you to believe. Electricity produced from coal fired power plants may indeed cost less on a utility bill, but only because the true costs of the fuel aren't added to the total.

To start there's a host of costs, both direct and indirect, associated with getting it out of the ground. Entire mountains are ripped down, the valleys between filled with rubble, to get at coal seams. Scores of men lose their lives around the world in cramped dark tunnels miles under the ground in pursuit of coal and endless lines of diesel trains chug smoke to carry it to industry.

Then there are the costs that come from burning it to create electricity. Smoke pours out of power plant, CO2 and other harmful pollutants create all sorts of environmental havoc in our atmosphere, and as we've recently seen in Harriman, Tennessee, huge ponds of coal ash slurry sometimes burst their banks and pollute entire river systems and communities.

Coal is cheap because utility companies don't have to pay for things like reliable coal ash containment. Instead of paying for proper disposal in composite lined landfills, they pile the ash up in open air slurry ponds-- open slurry ponds that sometime fail.

Utility companies have been able to get away with this, in part, because they've had an extremely friendly administration making the rules for the past 8 years. That ended on Tuesday.

It's likely that over the next two Obama terms we'll see the external costs of fossil fuels made internal. That means coal will be more expensive to dig up, burn, and dispose of, making renewable energy more competitive based on price. Eventually coal will literally be pushed out of the market- you won't be able to make money with it.

A great place to start down that road would be to force utility companies to stop dodging their responsibilities and start processing their coal ash properly.

Assignment Earth put together a great video after taking a trip to the sight of the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant near Harriman, Tennessee. Click over and watch it, it's a great five minutes.