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NRC: Burning fossil fuels costs the U.S. $120 billion a year — not counting mercury or climate impacts!

By Climate Guest Contributor  

"NRC: Burning fossil fuels costs the U.S. $120 billion a year — not counting mercury or climate impacts!"

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A new report from the National Research Council examines and, when possible, estimates “hidden” costs of energy production and use — such as the damage air pollution imposes on human health — that are not reflected in market prices of coal, oil, other energy sources, or the electricity and gasoline produced from them.  The report estimates dollar values for several major components of these costs.  The damages the committee was able to quantify were an estimated $120 billion in the U.S. in 2005, a number that reflects primarily health damages from air pollution associated with electricity generation and motor vehicle transportation.  The figure does not include damages from climate change, harm to ecosystems, effects of some air pollutants such as mercury, and risks to national security, which the report examines but does not monetize.

As the Senate gears up to discuss clean energy legislation this fall, the Senate may have””despite its awareness””another healthcare debate on its hands.  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.

The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recently found that our current level of energy use is costing us a lot more than our environment””it is also costing us our health. In the newly released “The Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use,” the NRC explores the external costs of energy, costs that are certainly not factored into its market price.  Requested by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the report reveals that there are substantial “hidden” costs to our energy production and use, primarily reflected in damages to human health. 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. These costs result in the death of 20,000 people each year“”10,000 due to coal alone.

The NRC reports that most of the “hidden” costs of energy are attributed to coal-fired electricity generation and motor vehicle transportation””they extract an annual toll of $62 billion and $56 billion, respectively. In reporting its cost figures, the NRC only included the estimates for 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 energy use””such as ecosystem disruption, other pollutants (like mercury), and national security risks””impose costs to Americans, these environmental costs were examined in the report but were excluded from the final cost figures. (Note: this actually made the reported costs much clearer due to the panoply of possible monetary values the NRC calculated for these other damages). The conclusion is resoundingly clear: our current energy use has implications for much more than debates about the climate.

The punch line? Coal-fired power plants and motor vehicle transportation account for roughly $118 billion of non-climatic damage to the U.S. each year. Natural gas, which accounts for 20% of our nation’s electricity generation and the “vast majority” of heating demands, only costs us a little over $2 billion dollars annually in unseen costs (also note that the Energy Information Administration projects that the market price of natural gas will be 14.6 times lower than that of oil through 2030). Comparatively, the report shows, renewable energy (wind, solar, geothermal, etc.) costs us very little in external damages. With a tremendous renewable energy potential and an abundant untapped supply of natural gas, the U.S needs to””and can!””reduce these hidden energy costs by generating clean energy that does not obscure the real costs of its production and use.

Jonathan Aronchick, an intern for the Energy Opportunity team at the Center for American Progress.

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13 Responses to NRC: Burning fossil fuels costs the U.S. $120 billion a year — not counting mercury or climate impacts!

  1. Leif says:

    Yet another article that one would think the main stream media would be all over.
    Hint, hint, folks.

  2. David Lewis says:

    As the Stern Review stated: “Climate change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen”

    http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/d/Summary_of_Conclusions.pdf

    I’d guess we have a load of cynics running the show all over the world, in the sense Oscar Wilde used: “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

  3. BBHY says:

    That much money would buy an amazing number of solar panels, windmills, and electric cars.

  4. Gail says:

    The NYT actually had a decent piece about this report:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/science/earth/20fossil.html?_r=1&emc=eta1

    The scary thing is, the cost of not acting to curb fuel emissions that were calculated in this study left so much out – for instance, they couldn’t factor in the moving pollution around phenomena – collecting toxins from power plants and then dumping them into a river.

    Most interestingly to me is that the analysis only considered damage to human health. There wasn’t a hint I can find so far reading the report that they even gave passing consideration to the damage to vegetation, even though it is well documented that fuel emissions are toxic to all species that must photosynthesize to produce chlorophyll.

    When is somebody with expertise going to do an analysis of what the cost of widespread crop failures and forest ecosystem collapse will be?

    Just taking down trees in towns and cities will be huge.

  5. Dano says:

    Most interestingly to me is that the analysis only considered damage to human health. There wasn’t a hint I can find so far reading the report that they even gave passing consideration to the damage to vegetation, even though it is well documented that fuel emissions are toxic to all species that must photosynthesize to produce chlorophyll.

    Sadly, these things no longer matter that much in our system. Nor do such omissions surprise me anymore. Which is why I’m fatalistic in my outlook on our prospects to figger this stuff out.

    Best,

    D

  6. Chris Johnson says:

    Do the math: $400 per year for every man, woman and child… That’s just a tad over a buck a day. Maybe we can cover it in the health reform bill.

    The broader economic, political and national security costs are estimated to be far higher and have much more severe implications. Respectfully request NRC reconvene and not stop asking questions until they’re wholly exhausted.

  7. Stephan says:

    Climate change is starting to become the biggest challenge that humans ever faced, not only environmentally, but also economically. With every day that we do not make any significant progress, it becomes worse. Therefore, it is good to see that more initiatives are arrising every day. However, real action is to be taken fast!

    For more info on the environment, have a look at this Green News.

  8. Mossy says:

    Gail (#4) comments “There wasn’t a hint I can find so far reading the report that they even gave passing consideration to the damage to vegetation, even though it is well documented that fuel emissions are toxic to all species that must photosynthesize to produce chlorophyll.”

  9. Mossy says:

    Gail comments “There wasn’t a hint I can find so far reading the report that they even gave passing consideration to the damage to vegetation, even though it is well documented that fuel emissions are toxic to all species that must photosynthesize to produce chlorophyll.”
    Wake up America! Our food supply is included in “vegetation.”
    For anyone not familiar with this issue, please check out Gail’s blog at http://witsendnj.blogspot.com. It provides a rare and valuable insight into the plight of our photosynthisizing species.

  10. Leif says:

    $120 billion divided by 300 million people in the USA = $400 for every man, woman, and child in the country. Subtract the folks too old, too young, too poor, or too rich to pay taxes and that leaves about 50% of us to pick up the bill or $800 bucks each. That includes YOU deniers out there, assuming you still have a job. What a deal…

  11. Florifulgurator says:

    Did you know/see that this coal cliff image is doctored? Try to find the 2 doubled patterns yourself or see: http://the-black-butterfly-effect.blogspot.com/2008/06/another-coal-bluff.html

  12. J4zonian says:

    Let’s play “The Price is Just Wrong!”

    Not including the amounts that climate change, mercury pollution, damage to ecosystems and national security add to our energy bill is like buying a car thinking you can pay only for the space it took up in the showroom, and not pay for shipping, labor or materials. Yes, the sticker price is going to be quite a shock!

    Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz estimated the eventual price tag of our Iraq-Afghan adventure at 3 trillion bucks. Every penny of that is included in the real price this country pays for being in the oil bidness. How much are 2 million acres of formerly live conifers worth? How much for billions of dead songbirds and their dependents? (dependents like farmers, and eaters). Our depredations and exploitations in the Middle East, our uncritical support of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and militaristic foreign policy and the resulting hatred by Arab and Islamic people, all a result of our need for a continued fix of oil, and all the expenditures and lost revenue caused by the panicked, militarized reaction to the September 2001 attacks should be included. The increased costs of mental and thus physical illness (depression reduces immune functioning, just for one example) caused by the stress, pollution and above all the destruction of nature and our increasing isolation from nature that are results of the use of fossil fuels should be included in their price. Those figures alone dwarf the counted items AND the named uncounted items, and there are many more.

    $120 billion is not only not even in the same region as the true cost, it’s not even in the same realm, not even in the same corrupt oiligarchic kingdom as the true cost. If we were at the $120b estimate and started walking we’d have to cross the Sahara, cross what used to be the Fertile Crescent and is now the deserts of Iraq, cross the future desert of Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and the rest of Central Asia—all of which together is called Saharasia—to even come close to the real cost.

    We will never find the true cost. There is no way to calculate the true cost. We have lost too much of our species’ adolescence and emotional functioning to even begin putting numbers on the true cost of fossil fuels to humanity and the biosphere. Maybe it’s time for those of us fed up with delay and denial to start seriously weaning ourselves from material industrialism’s toxic black milk and black bones.

    Conservation, solar, wind, organic permaculture, vegetarianism, locovority, walking, bicycling, Transition Towning… Change. It starts with your light bulbs, ends up being your life.

  13. coursoria says:

    Impressive Article , I thought it was exceptional

    I look ahead to more great postings like this one. Does Your Blog have a RSS I can subscribe to for new postings?