Coal costs the United States $500 billion each year

It made the headlights last week on practically all environmental websites. The hidden costs – the negative externalities if you prefer – of coal are of 500 billion Dollars per year for the United States alone.

Yes, you read it right : burning coal costs the country half a trillion dollar on health costs, premature deaths – we saw about this earlier – and of course environmental issues as it pollutes soil, air and water…

Luckily, the United States can cut by two thirds their consumption by 2020 and become completely coal-free by 2030 just by investing in energy efficiency. What are they waiting for ?

Here are some extracts of the research carried out by no less than Paul Epstein, from the Harvard Medical School :

Each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment. These costs are external to the coal industry and are thus often considered “externalities.”

We estimate that the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually. Many of these so-called externalities are, moreover, cumulative.

Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of nonfossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive. We focus on Appalachia, though coal is mined in other regions of the United States and is burned throughout the world.

Here are two factoids taken from the research :

  • Coal accounted for 25% of global energy consumption in 2005, but generated 41% of the CO2 emissions that year.
  • In the United States, coal produces just over 50% of the electricity, but generates over 80% of the CO2 emissions from the utility sector.

The paper contains an interesting part on carbon capture and storage (CCS), also known as clean coal. Well, it just isn’t :

  • Storing compressed and liquefied CO2 underground can acidify saline aquifers (akin to ocean acidification) and leach heavy metals, such as arsenic and lead, into ground water.
  • Increased pressures could destabilize underground faults and lead to earthquakes.
  • Acidification of ground water increases fluid-rock interactions that enhance calcite dissolution and solubility, and can lead to fractures in limestone (CaCO3) and subsequent releases of CO2 in high concentrations.
  • Increased pressures may cause leaks and releases from previously drilled (often unmapped) pathways.

This isn’t entirely new as I wrote that CCS won’t solve the climate change problem, but this brings further data on the topic.

To conclude today’s article : I have a dream today, that the United States gets rid of coal by 2030. This is the only way for them to significantly cut their emissions.

Giving the subsidies to energy efficiency instead of coal as it is done nowadays would be the very first thing that should be done to enable the country to go towards sustainability for sure.

Imagine, a 80 percent cut of greenhouse gases emissions in a heavily polluting sector is at stake.

(I believe we in Europe too could do something about it… )

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