The GOP’s deadly “war on coal” lie

Republicans bemoan new regulations on the use of coal, but ignore the fuel's devastating health consequences

Topics: Republican Party, Climate Change, Coal, Environment, Pollution, renewable energy, Koch Brothers, ,

The GOP's deadly "war on coal" lie (Credit: Reuters/Jim Bourg)

On April 5, 2010, at 3:27 pm, a massive explosion occurred roughly 1,000 feet underground in Raleigh County, West Virginia, at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine, killing 29 out of 31 miners at the site. It was the worst mining accident in the U.S. since 1970.

Yet, it could be argued that more people die from coal every day than were killed in the Big Branch mine disaster —  deaths most heavily concentrated in those communities and states where coal is mined and burned in power plants. What’s more, using a standard public health account method, a 2009 paper published in Public Health Reports, “Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost,” concluded that “The human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighs its economic benefits.” For all the talk of how vital coal is to the region’s economy, the region would be better off without it. And global warming played no role at all in that analysis.

As President Obama unveils his plan to finally begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions, we’re bound to hear a high volume of complaints about a “war on coal.” But what about coal’s war on humanity? Because, believe it or not, coal has been at war with humans at least since large-scale coal mining began at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. Yes, coal has provided enormous benefits as a source of power, but at a terrible cost that most people even today aren’t cognizant of.

In fact, the paper referred to above only captured part of the unpaid, hidden costs of coal—what economists call “externalities” or “externalized costs.” Further research suggests that the full weight of such externalities is so high that we could well be better off abandoning coal as a fuel source, even if there were no danger of global warming at all. The human costs associated with coal mining, plus those associated with power generation, are in themselves enough reason to abandon coal as quickly as we can replace it with renewables and increased efficiency. It’s just that toxic, deadly, and costly.

The notion of externalities was introduced by British economist Arthur Cecil Pigou almost 100 years ago. As a paper I’ll discuss below explains:



Externalities occur when the activity of one agent affects the well-being of another agent outside of any type of market mechanism—these are often not taken into account in decision making and when they are not accounted for, they can distort the decisionmaking process and reduce the welfare of society.

Taxes (and subsidies) intended to compensate for externalized costs (and benefits) are known as Pigouvian taxes (and subsidies), and while free market ideologues routinely rail against taxes of any kind, Pigovian taxes actually aim to make the free market system work better, to make prices more accurately reflect the true costs of the products being sold. These are important points to keep in mind, as we turn to examine coal’s dirty record.

We can get an inkling of coal’s true costs from a 2004 report, “Dirty Air, Dirty Power: Mortality and Health Damage Due to Air Pollution from Power Plants,” written by Conrad G. Schneider, that summarizes the results of a study by Abt Associates. Although its focus was on power plants, per se, and the potential to make them less toxic and less deadly, it also clearly revealed that coal was the most deadly energy source used in such plants.

Its findings included:

  • Fine particle pollution from U.S. power plants cuts short the lives of nearly 24,000 people each year, including 2800 from lung cancer.
  • The average number of life-years lost by individuals dying prematurely from exposure to particulate matter is 14 years.
  • Hundreds of thousands of Americans suffer each year from asthma attacks, cardiac problems, and respiratory problems associated with fine particles from power plants.
  • Power plant pollution is responsible for 38,200 non-fatal heart attacks per year.

The report also found that “[t]he vast majority (at least 90 percent or 22,000) of the deaths due to fine particle pollution could be avoided by capping power plant sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution at levels consistent with the installation of today’s best available emissions controls.” This kind of comprehensive approach had been in the works before President Bush derailed it with his deceptively-named “Clear Skies” proposal, which the report noted “would result in 4,000 additional preventable premature deaths each year while repealing the very safeguards that could save those additional lives.”

As for coal, specifically, the report stated:

For more than thirty years, the oldest, dirtiest coal-burning power plants have circumvented air emissions standards required of modern power plants. As a result, these “grandfathered” power plants are permitted to emit more than 10 times more nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide than modern coal plants.

The report also noted that while coal accounted for half the nation’s electricity generation, it accounted for 90 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants, which in turn was responsible for the most dangerous forms of particulate pollution. Abt Associates developed state-level and major-metropolitan-area health-impact estimates. “Not surprisingly, states with large populations in close proximity to many coal fired power plants fared the worst,” while those not using coal fared much better:

For example, California, which has the nation’s largest population and some of its worst air quality, has few coal or oil-fired plants. Abt Associates estimates that only 249 deaths are attributable to power plant pollution in California, and the state ranked 46th in per capita impact (number of deaths per 100,000 adults). West Virginia, a state heavily reliant on coal for electricity production, ranked first in related per capita mortality with more than 33 deaths per 100,000 adults, or more than 25 times higher than California’s per capita mortality rate.

One couldn’t ask for a more dramatic picture of the high cost West Virginia pays for its coal industry. Although large metropolitan areas using coal-fired plants suffered high mortality rates, the worst impacts were felt in coal country itself:

However, much smaller metropolitan areas in and around “coal country,” such as Wheeling, West Virginia; Steubenville, Ohio; Cumberland, Maryland; and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, suffer the greatest per capita impacts. Their death rates are much higher, for example, than that of New York City. For instance, the mortality rate from power plant pollution is 35 deaths per 100,000 adults in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania compared with nine per 100,000 in New York City.

The report also included a map of power-plant deaths per 100,000 adults, showing that levels greater than 30 deaths per 100,000 adults were heavily concentrated in Appalachia, surrounded by a much wider zone with deaths in the 20-to-30-death range, which spread as far west as Oklahoma and Kansas. However, westward from the Rocky Mountains, the levels were commonly below 5, and from northern California up to eastern Montana, most of the region had rates below 1.

The deadliness of coal is beyond dispute. And it’s the people of coal country who are doing the dying—not the hated “coastal elites” who conservative Republicans are blaming for the so-called “war on coal.”

If we could learn all that from a 2004 report that wasn’t even focused on coal, per se, what could we learn from a public health researcher specifically concerned about coal? Michael Hendryx, formerly at West Virginia University, now at Indiana University, has done extensive research on the negative health and mortality impacts of coal. He was co-author of the crucial 2009 paper cited above, but he’s also done research further emphasizing how localized the costs of coal are within Appalachia as well.

For example, in “Mortality from heart, respiratory, and kidney disease in coal mining areas of Appalachia“, Hendryx wrote,

For both males and females, mortality rates in Appalachian counties with the highest level of coal mining were significantly higher relative to non-mining areas for chronic heart, respiratory and kidney disease, but were not higher for acute forms of illness. Higher rates of acute heart and respiratory mortality were found for non-Appalachian coal mining counties.

In “Higher coronary heart disease and heart attack morbidity in Appalachian coal mining regions,” Hendryx and a coauthor found that people in Appalachian coal mining areas reported “significantly higher risk” of cardiovascular disease, angina or coronary heart disease, and heart attack. And in “Mortality Rates in Appalachian Coal Mining Counties: 24 Years Behind the Nation” he found that,

Appalachian coal mining areas were characterized by 1,607 excess annual deaths over the period 1999–2004. Adjusted mortality rates increase with increasing coal production from 1 to 7 million tons.

The results were inescapable: The greater people’s involvement with coal mining, the more they suffered and died.

Hendryx has also done research specifically about the practice of mountaintop coal mining, also known as “mountaintop removal,” a particularly destructive practice that has ravaged Appalachia in recent years. In “Self-Reported Cancer Rates in Two Rural Areas of West Virginia with and without Mountaintop Coal Mining,” Hendryx and three co-authors collected health interview data from 773 adults, and found that “[s]elf-reported cancer rates were significantly higher in the mining versus the non-mining area.”

In turn, all of the research that Hendryx and his colleagues completed were fed into a far-reaching analysis headed up by Paul Epstein, of Harvard Medical School, titled “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal” and published in 2011. Both Hendryx and the co-author of the 2009 mortality paper, Melissa Ahern, were co-authors on this paper as well. The abstract of that paper explained the problem thus:

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.”

And then explained described the results of their analysis:

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 non fossil 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.

The statement about making renewable energy competitive was an exercise in understatement, however. Wind and solar generation are already proving themselves competitive even without accounting for the negative externalities of coal. In an August 2013 article at the Financial Times, “Renewables: A rising power,” Pilita Clark reported that the prospect of unsubsidized solar power becoming competitive had previously “been largely confined to the realms of environmental campaigners and renewable energy advocates,” but not any more:

However, as solar panels become more efficient and vastly cheaper, and household power bills keep rising, analysts at some of the world’s largest financial institutions say such a prospect is indeed possible – and likely to cause profound disruption in the energy industry.

“We’re at a point now where demand starts to be driven by cold, hard economics rather than by subsidies and that is a game changer,” says Jason Channell of Citigroup.

Another global bank, UBS, says an “unsubsidised solar revolution” has begun that could eventually supply as much as 18 per cent of electricity demand in parts of Europe.

Electricity is cheaper in the US, largely because of our cheaper coal, but even here alternative energy has already become competitive while costs continue to decline, which is why the Koch brothers have begun fighting the spread of renewables—they see it as a viable economic threat to their fossil fuel interests. The near-term prospect of renewables becoming increasingly cost-competitive only makes the consideration of externalized costs all the more important for guiding social policy.

To start things off, Epstein’s paper puts the magnitude of coal’s role in global warming squarely in focus:

In 2005, coal derived electricity was responsible for 7.856 Gt [gigatons] of CO2 emissions or 30% of all worldwide carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and 72% of CO2 emissions from power generation (one gigaton = one billion tons; one metric ton = 2,204 pounds.) Non–power-generation uses of coal, including industry (e.g., steel, glass-blowing), transport, residential services, and agriculture, were responsible for another 3.124 Gt of CO2, bringing coal’s total burden of CO2 emissions to 41% of worldwide CO2 emissions in 2005.

It then goes on to note the challenges—and increased expense—of making coal a climate-neutral energy source. The technology for removing CO2 from coal-burning plants—carbon capture and storage (CCS)—is still in the pilot project stage, but relying on cost projections from MIT, the authors note that all the combined costs involved “would nearly double the costs of electricity generation from coal plants using current combustion technology.”

The passage explaining the meaning of externalities that I quoted near the beginning comes from this paper’s summary of its methods. Following that passage, it explains, “This work strives to derive monetary values for these externalities so that they can be used to inform policy making,” and it does so by tabulating “a wide range of costs associated with the full life cycle of coal, separating those that are quantifiable and monetizable; those that are quantifiable, but difficult to monetize; and those that are qualitative.” It is an inexact science, to be sure, but it’s still far preferable to ignoring those costs altogether. Because of the uncertainties involved, low, best, and high estimates are presented throughout.

The monetizable impacts found are damages due to climate change; public health damages from NOx, SO2, PM2.5 [soot], and mercury emissions; fatalities of members of the public due to rail accidents during coal transport; the public health burden in Appalachia associated with coal mining; government subsidies; and lost value of abandoned mine lands.

A table provides an overview of the life cycle impacts, broken down into four categories, economic, human health, environment and other. Impacts are separately identified for different sorts of mining practice, and other parts of the coal life cycle. These are: underground coal mining, mountaintop removal mining, coal mining, coal transportation, coal combustion, waste disposal and electricity transmission. Because my primary focus is on the human impacts of coal, here are the human health impacts for just one category, to give a sense of the range of impacts involved.

Coal mining:

  1. Workplace fatalities and injuries of coal miners
  2. Morbidity and mortality of mine workers resulting from air pollution (e.g., black lung, silicosis)
  3. Increased mortality and morbidity in coal communities due to mining pollution
  4. Increased morbidity and mortality due to increased air particulates in communities proximate to MTR mining
  5. Hospitalization costs resulting from increased morbidity in coal communities
  6. Local health impacts of heavy metals in coal slurry
  7. Health impacts resulting from coal slurry spills and water contamination
  8. Threats remaining from abandoned mine lands; direct trauma from loose boulders and felled trees
  9. Mental health impacts
  10. Dental health impacts reported, possibly from heavy metals
  11. Fungal growth after flooding

When Epstein and his co-authors total up all the quantifiable externalized costs of coal, they conclude, “Our best estimate for the externalities related to coal is $345.3 billion (range: $175.2 bn to $523.3 bn). On a per-kWh basis this is 17.84¢/kWh, ranging from 9.42¢/kWh to 26.89¢/kWh.”

Despite the considerable range of values involved, three kinds of cost combine to account for more than 90% of the externalized costs at the low, high and best estimate levels: the community health costs identified by Hendryx and Ahern, coal’s portion of the air quality costs identified in the “Dirty Air, Dirty Power” paper, and climate change.

The cost estimates of climate change are particularly divergent, ranging from a low of 1.06¢/kWh to a high of 10.71¢/kWh, with a best estimate of 3.15¢/kWh. But here’s the core problem with the whole “war on coal” narrative: if we removed climate change entirely from our consideration, the unpaid hidden cost of coal—primarily in terms of public health—would still be staggering. It would range from a low of 8.36¢/kWh to a high of 16.18¢/kWh with a best estimate of 14.69¢/kWh. This compares with a national average cost of residential electricity of around 12¢/kWh. What’s more, long term wind power contracts are now around half that.

In short, wind power is now cheaper, long-term than the low-range estimate of coal’s externalized costs, without even taking global warming into consideration. Simply put, that means that all the human suffering on account of coal—heart attacks, respiratory failure, cancer, you name it—is more than enough reason to phase out coal as quickly as possible. The fact that we can also reduce future losses due to global warming? That’s pure gravy, if only we’re willing to fight back against coal’s war on humanity.

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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