The true cost of coal

True cost

Courtesy Jane M Sawyer


By Peter Wray

Although the coal industry claims to have 250 years of reserves, the truth is that we may have only 50 years of accessible coal available. After that, the coal that remains will likely be too dirty to be burned in conventional power plants, too deeply buried underground, or located in areas too highly populated to mine.

In straight economic terms, coal costs have risen sharply. This is due largely to the rising cost of oil and an increasing demand from Asia. According to the Energy Information Administration, coal delivered to U.S. power plants cost $36 per ton in August 2007, an increase of 40 percent since 2003. In Australia, Newcastle coal is now selling for $93 a ton; and in Rotterdam, the European benchmark, coal jumped to $130 a ton, up from $68.5 a year ago.

But the market price of coal is far less than the cost to society as a whole.

The true cost of mining coal

In Pennsylvania, longwall mines have subsided land and caved-in buildings, including dozens of historic homes and structures, on more than 5,000 properties. In addition, 97 miles of streams have been undermined, and wetlands and lakes have been lost. Surface mines have also wreaked havoc in our state. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that in Pennsylvania alone, it would cost between five to fifteen billion dollars to clean up the 3,000 miles of streams degraded by acid mine drainage from working and abandoned mines.

Things are even worse in West Virginia where an astounding one million acres have been strip-mined or mined via mountain top removal. Every year an estimated 100,000,000 board feet of new growth hardwood timber is lost and over 1,000 miles of streams are buried when debris from blasting and mining fills the valleys below. In the end, less than five percent of the acreage can be rehabilitated or developed, and when rehabilitation does occur, it generally consists of placing a thin layer of soil over the rock, which supports only non-native grass and scrubby pines.

In addition to the environmental costs of mining, there is also the human cost. The China Daily reported that more than 6,000 miners died in the quest for coal in 2005 alone. And in 2006, seventeen men died in Appalachian coal mines—fourteen of them in West Virginia. An estimated 2.8 percent of coal miners are also affected by black lung disease which results from the inhalation of coal dust. Each year, close to 400 American miners die from the disease and the costs for medical care and benefit payments to victims and their survivors run in the hundreds of millions.

The true cost of burning coal

The World Health Organization estimates that in East Asia, where coal smoke blankets industrial cities, more than 355,000 people each year die from air pollution. The American Lung Association calculates that in the U.S., approximately 24,000 people die annually, and prematurely, from the effects of coal-fired power plant pollution—a number that is likely to increase as new plants come online in the U.S., China, and India. John Ashton, Britain’s top climate change official at the Foreign Office, reported to the BBC that China is now building about two power plants every week.

Emitted from these coal-fired plants is a tongue-tripping list of toxins: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide, mercury, lead, arsenic, chromium, and dioxin. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide both form acid rain, which damages everything it touches. Carbon dioxide causes global warming; mercury causes brain damage and harms reproduction in women and wildlife; lead causes developmental problems in children; arsenic causes cancer; chromium causes respiratory damage; and dioxin’s toxicity is second only to radioactive waste.

The true cost of coal waste

In addition to their emissions, U.S. coal-fired power plants produce 130 million tons of solid waste annually—three times the amount of our country’s municipal garbage.

Coal Combustion Waste (CCW) is the ash left over from burning coal and the least recognized of the problems associated with coal use. Despite the fact that CCW contains toxic metals including mercury, arsenic, hexavalent chromium, and lead, this waste is largely unregulated and often disposed of in unlined pits or old surface mines. Contamination of groundwater often results, and people living near this waste are often exposed to levels of contaminants that are 10,000 times higher than the national average.

Another cost of mine waste is the acid drainage from abandoned mines, which has resulted in the contamination of more than 3,000 miles of streams and associated ground waters in Pennsylvania. Although the cost of restoring damaged watersheds in our state is estimated to be more than $5 billion, Pennsylvania has received only $21 million a year for mine restoration projects in the past three years. Mine restoration funds are expected to increase in coming years with about $1 billion to be spent over the next 15 years. However, only a portion of those funds will be directed to correcting acid mine drainage and water quality problems.

The true cost of inaction

In January, the European Union announced sweeping measures to cut greenhouse gases and boost renewable energy. Although these measures will cost an estimated $87 billion annually, the EU estimates the cost of inaction at ten times that amount. According to the Stern Review on the Economic Costs of Climate Change, if no action is taken, climate change will cost as much as the Great Depression and both World Wars combined.

When the true costs of mining and burning coal is factored into its price, sustainable and clean, low-carbon technologies look like the bargain they are. Although we don’t yet have all the alternative measures in place to allow for the complete retirement of our coal-fired plants, it’s economically unwise to invest in new coal ventures. Instead, we need to consume less coal-fired energy and invest in far less destructive renewable energy sources.

Peter Wray is chair of the Chapter's Huplit's wildlife commitee and is the Allegheny Group's co-conservation chair.

Published April 2008