Our guest blogger is Jonathan Aronchick, an intern with the Energy Opportunity team at the Center for American Progress.
The burning of coal and oil is killing 20,000 Americans each year, a new Congressional report has found. After the Senate completes its work on health insurance reform, it will have the chance to pass major legislation to further improve our nation’s health, with the Kerry-Boxer Clean Energy Jobs Act. The National Research Council (NRC), an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recently found that the United States is paying a heavy price in health and lives lost for its dependence on fossil fuels. In the newly released report, “The Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use,” the NRC explores the “externalities” of energy use, costs that are not factored into its market price. Requested by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the report monetizes these unseen energy costs at $120 billion annually by tracing the full cycle of our energy use—extraction, development, deployment, and waste:
Based on the results of external-cost studies published in the 1990s, we focused especially on air pollution. In particular, we evaluated effects related to emissions of particulate matter (PM), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and oxides of nitrogen (NOx), which form criteria air pollutants. We monetized effects of those pollutants on human health, grain crop and timber yields, building materials, recreation, and visibility of outdoor vistas. Health damages, which include premature mortality and morbidity (such as chronic bronchitis and asthma), constituted the vast majority of monetized damages, with premature mortality being the single largest health-damage category.
Shockingly, the NRC’s estimates for the death toll of a school bus worth of Americans every day are very conservative — a 2004 report by the Clean Air Task Force estimated 24,000 people died prematurely due to coal pollution alone.
Most of the hidden costs of energy use come from coal-fired electricity generation ($62 billion a year) and motor vehicle transportation ($56 billion a year). The NRC did not take into account the cost of global warming pollution, including only the estimates for some of the non-climatic costs imposed by our energy use, specifically those costs related to health, agriculture, and built infrastructure. Although other pernicious side-effects of our dependence on dirty fuels — such as ecosystem disruption, mercury contamination, and national security risks — were examined in the report, they were excluded from the final cost figures.
Comparatively, the report shows that renewable energy such as wind, solar, geothermal power costs us very little in external damages. If we cannot direct our use of energy towards those forms that do not carry hidden burdens, we better hope that Americans have good health insurance.