* Health, environmental damage could triple cost of power
* "Public cost greater than cost of coal itself"-author
By Scott Malone
BOSTON, Feb 16 The United States' reliance on
coal to generate almost half of its electricity, costs the
economy about $345 billion a year in hidden expenses not borne
by miners or utilities, including health problems in mining
communities and pollution around power plants, a study found.
Those costs would effectively triple the price of
electricity produced by coal-fired plants, which are prevalent
in part due to the their low cost of operation, the study led
by a Harvard University researcher found.
"This is not borne by the coal industry, this is borne by
us, in our taxes," said Paul Epstein, a Harvard Medical School
instructor and the associate director of its Center for Health
and the Global Environment, the study's lead author.
"The public cost is far greater than the cost of the coal
itself. The impacts of this industry go way beyond just
lighting our lights."
Coal-fired plants currently supply about 45 percent of the
nation's electricity, according to U.S. Energy Department data.
Accounting for all the ancillary costs associated with burning
coal would add about 18 cents per kilowatt hour to the cost of
electricity from coal-fired plants, shifting it from one of the
cheapest sources of electricity to one of the most expensive.
In the year that ended in November, the average retail
price of electricity in the United States was about 10 cents
per kilowatt hour, according to the Energy Department.
Advocates of coal power have argued that it is among the
cheapest of fuel sources available in the United States,
allowing for lower-cost power than that provided by the
developing wind and solar industries.
"The Epstein article ignores the substantial benefits of
coal in maintaining lower energy prices for American families
and businesses," said Lisa Camooso Miller, a spokeswoman for
the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry
group. "Lower energy prices are linked to a higher standard of
living and better health."
HEALTH, ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS
The estimate of hidden costs takes into account a variety
of side-effects of coal production and use. Among them are the
cost of treading elevated rates of cancer and other illnesses
in coal-mining areas, environmental damage and lost tourism
opportunities in coal regions where mountaintop removal is
practiced and climate change resulting from elevated emissions
of carbon dioxide from burning the coal.
Coal releases more carbon dioxide when burned than does
natural gas or oil.
The $345 billion annual cost figure was the study's best
estimate of the costs associated with burning coal. The study
said the costs could be as low as $175 billion or as high as
"This is effectively a subsidy borne by asthmatic children
and rain-polluted lakes and the climate is another way of
looking at it," said Kert Davies, research director with the
environmental activist group Greenpeace. "It's a tax by the
industry on us that we are not seeing in our bills but we are
bearing the costs."
The estimates came in the paper "Full cost accounting for
the life cycle of coal," to be published in the Annals of the
New York Academy of Sciences. Epstein discussed his findings on
the Arctic Sunrise, a 164-foot-long (50 metre long) icebreaker
operated by Greenpeace, and moored in Boston Harbor.
Leading users of coal in the United States include
utilities American Electric Power Co Inc (AEP.N) and Duke
Energy Corp (DUK.N). The top producers include miners Arch Coal
Inc (ACI.N), Consol Energy Inc (CNX.N), Peabody Energy Corp
BTU.N and Alpha Natural Resources ANR.N.
(Reporting by Scott Malone, editing by Maureen Bavdek)