Economics Stunner: “Oil and Coal-Fired Power Plants Have Air Pollution Damages Larger Than Their Value Added.”


Natural Gas Damage Larger Than Its Value Added For Even Low CO2 Prices

Coal does more harm than good.

Okay, public health experts have known this for a while — see Life-cycle study [Epstein et al]: Accounting for total harm from coal would add “close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated.”

But now we have some of the leading (center-right) economists in the country — Nicholas Z. Muller, Robert Mendelsohn, and William Nordhaus — making this case in a top economic journal, the American Economic Review.  Their article, “Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy” [aka MMN11], models the impact of emissions of six major pollutants (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, ammonia, fine particulate matter, and coarse particulate matter) from the country’s 10,000 pollution sources.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman summarizes the core conclusions in his post, “Markets Can Be Very, Very Wrong.”

Consumers are paying much too low a price for coal-generated electricity, because the price they pay does not take account of the very large external costs associated with generation. If consumers did have to pay the full cost, they would use much less electricity from coal — maybe none, but that would depend on the alternatives.

At one level, this is all textbook economics. Externalities like pollution are one of the classic forms of market failure, and Econ 101 says that this failure should be remedied through pollution taxes or tradable emissions permits that get the price right.

What is all the more remarkable about this conclusion is that the authors use an uber-low, uber-lame, uber-outdated “price” for CO2:

We use the social cost of carbon for the year 2000. This cost will rise over time as greenhouse gases accumulate and marginal damages increase. We assume that the central estimate of the social cost of carbon is $27 per ton of carbon (Nordhaus 2008b).


Nordhaus 2008b is Nordhaus’s 2008 book, A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on global Warming Policies.  It was total bunk back in 2008.  I read it but I never got around to debunking it.  Didn’t think it was relevant given that it was instantly out of date.  Alas.

The actual social cost of carbon today is at least 5 times that price and more than 10 times that in the near future (or now, see here).  As but one example, the relatively Conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) noted back in 2008 that just to stabilize at 550 ppm, which would likely still be catastrophic for humanity, you’d need a price of “$90/tonne of CO2 in 2030,” which is to say $330 a metric ton of carbon.  You need a 2030 CO2 price of “$180/tonne in the 450 Policy Scenario” — $660 a metric ton of carbon.

And let’s not forget the work of Martin Weitzman on the impact of even a small chance of catastrophic impacts — see Harvard economist: Climate cost-benefit analyses [like Nordhaus’s] are “unusually misleading,” warns colleagues “we may be deluding ourselves and others.”

The fact is that on our business as usual emissions path, we have a very high chance of catastrophic impacts, not the 3% or so chance Weitzman estimates (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts“).

And yet Nordhaus and company still find that the total damages from natural gas exceed its value-added at a low-ball carbon price of $27 per ton! At a price of $65 a ton of carbon, the total damages from natural gas are more than double its value-added!

And so once again the literature makes clear that a massive ramp up of natural gas ain’t the solution to global warming —  as many 2011 analyses have found, including the IEA’s.  Needless to say, if natural gas does more harm than good, you can imagine how bad coal is.

Skeptical Science has a longer discussion of this important paper, which I repost below.

True Cost of Coal Power – Muller, Mendelsohn, and Nordhaus

by dana1981

Gross External Damages (GED)

MMN11 present a framework to include the externalities associated with air pollution into a system of national accounts.  They estimate air pollution damages for each industry in the USA by quantifying the damages caused by air pollution, and multiplying those damages by the emissions per industry, which they call “gross external damages” (GED).  MMN11 propose that “air pollution becomes another cost of doing business,” as is the case for some pollutants.

The paper also compares GED to the value added (VA) by a given industry “to determine whether correcting for external costs has a substantial effect on the net economic impact of different industries.”  MMN11 describe their modeling methodology to estimate GED:

“This paper uses the Air Pollution Emission Experiments and Policy (APEEP) analysis model, which is an integrated assessment economic model of air pollution for the United States (Muller and Mendelsohn 2007). The APEEP model connects emissions of six major pollutants (sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ammonia (NH3), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and coarse particulate matter (PM10 –PM2.5)) to the physical and economic consequences of these discharges on society. The effects included in the model calculations are adverse consequences for human health, decreased timber and agriculture yields, reduced visibility, accelerated depreciation of materials, and reductions in recreation services. In addition, for the electric power generation sector, we include the damages from carbon dioxide emissions.”

MMN11 provides an estimate of GED costs for various sectors in Table 1.  The largest GED/VA ratio comes from agriculture/forestry and utilities.

GED table

MMN11 break down the GED/VA ratio by industry, and show the 17 industries for which the ratio is at least 45%, or GED is greater than $4 billion per year in Table 2.  Petroleum-fired and coal-fired power generation have the second- and fourth-highest GED/VA ratios, respectively.  Note that the GED estimates in Tables 1 and 2 do not include CO2 emissions and their associated impacts on climate change.  We will examine those costs later.

MMN table 2

What Does a High GED/VA Ratio Mean?

In short, the cost of the damage not accounted for in the market price from industries with GED/VA ratios greater than one (including petroleum and coal power generation) exceed the value they add through their products/services.  However, that doesn’t mean we would benefit from getting rid of them altogether, because if we internalized the external costs associated with their air pollution, then their GED would decrease.  As MMN11 put it (emphasis added),

“if the external costs were fully internalized, prices would change, so the results do not imply that the US economy would be better off not having these industries at all…On a formal level, it signifies that a one-unit increase in output of that industry has additional social costs that are higher than the incremental revenues. At an intuitive level, it indicates that the regulated levels of emissions from the industry are too high.”

MMN11 suggest a possible interpretation of the high GED/VA ratios is that these industries are not efficiently regulated – the damages associated with their pollution exceed the costs of abatement (through some form of emissions pricing).  Another possibility is that ‘VA’ doesn’t fully account for the value added from a given industry.

Breaking Down Coal Damages

MMN11 delve into more detail regarding the GED associated with coal power generation.  They find that SO2 emissions are responsible for 87% of the damages associated with coal power emissions (excluding climate change), and 94% of the damages come in the form of increased mortality.  For those who claim that burning coal is safe and harmless, the numbers tell a very different story, even without including the effects associated with climate change.

The study also compares the figures for coal, petroleum, and natural gas power plants.  They find that coal accounts for 95% of GED in this sector (though it also accounts for the largest percentage of total power generation), and coal power has the highest GED per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity generated (though as noted in Table 2, petroleum has a higher GED/VA ratio).  The GED per kWh for natural gas is 20 to 30 times lower than for oil and coal, respectively, because its (non-carbon) emissions are so much lower (Table 5).

Climate Change Costs

MMN11 note that CO2 emissions are not yet available for all industries, but are available from electric power generation from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).  As Skeptical Science has discussed, the costs associated with climate change impacts are calculated through the “social cost of carbon” (SCC), which is a very difficult value to estimate….  MMN11 use $27 per ton [of carbon] (from a previous study by Nordhaus, which is a rather conservative estimate) as their central SCC estimate, and also use $6 and $65 per ton as lower and upper bound estimates.

MMN11 incorporate climate change costs into GED for power plants, which they call “GED*” (Table 5).

MMN11 table 5

Using the Nordhaus SCC best estimate ($27 per ton of CO2 emitted) increases the GED for coal power from 2.8 to 3.6 cents per kWh (29%), for example.  This means that CO2 emissions are responsible for approximately one-fourth of total air pollution damages from coal (and petroleum) power generation.  For coal, CO2 emissions cause an additional $15 billion in external damages per year which are not reflected in its market price.  The total GED for coal power ranges from $57 to 90 billion per year, depending on the SCC value (central estimate of $69 billion).  MMN11 note how these values relate to electricity prices:

“In 2002, residential consumers of electricity faced an average market price of 8.4 cents per kwh. Hence, the GED*/kwh associated with electric power generation using coal, oil, and natural gas represents 43, 33, and 7 percent of the average residential retail price of electricity in 2002. Note that residential electricity prices vary by the primary fuel type used in electricity production. In states that primarily rely on coal-fired power, residential electricity prices averaged 6 cents per kwh. The average GED*/kwh of coal-generated electricity is 60 percent of the average residential retail price of electricity in a state relying entirely on coal.”


MMN11 note some of the largest sources of uncertainty in their cost estimates:

“we note that the uncertainties are particularly large for four elements: the value of mortality risks, the relationship of this value to age, the mortality effect of fine particulates, and the social cost of CO2 emissions.  Sensitivity analyses using alternative values for these parameters change the magnitude of the results significantly.”

Skeptical Science previously examined Epstein et al. (2011), which arrived at a much higher estimate of the external costs of coal combustion, mainly due to a higher estimate of (non-CO2) air pollution damages.  Their median estimate was 18 cents per kWh, as opposed to the median MMN11 estimate of 3.6 cents per kWh – obviously a very large difference.

Epstein et al. also accounted for several factors not included in the MMN11 analysis, such as public health in Appalachia related to mining, which by itself accounted for approximately 4 cents per kWh in their estimate.  However, the estimates of air pollution externalities varied greatly in the two studies, from 2.8 cents per kWh in MMN11 to approximately 10 cents per kWh in Epstein.  The median climate change impact estimate in Epstein (3 cents per kWh) was also larger than in MMN11 (0.8 cents per kWh) (Figure 1).

[JR:  Epstein uses a base CO2 price of $30 a ton, almost 3 times that of MMN11, and far more plausible, though still low.]

coal costs

Figure 1: Average US coal electricity price vs. MMN11 and Epstein 2011 best estimate coal external costs (added to the Skeptical Science graphics page)

So there are clearly significant uncertainties in these estimates.  However, it’s important to bear in mind that uncertainties are expected in a Pigovian tax (a tax levied to address a market externality).  Finding the exact emissions price is not necessary, because once the external cost is internalized, the emissions price can be adjusted accordingly.  First we have to take the first step in attempting to internalize the GED.

Take-Home Messages

There are some very important points to take home from these economic studies.  The first is that while these assessments involve significant uncertainties, they agree that the true cost of coal is not accurately reflected in its market price.  In fact, the true cost lies somewhere between ~50% and 300% more than Americans are currently paying.  The two largest contributors to this discrepancy are SO2 emissions (impacting air quality and public health) and CO2 emissions (impacting climate change).  Therefore, regulating SO2 emissions more strictly, and putting a price on CO2 emissions, would benefit the US economy.  As Paul Krugman put it, it’s “Econ 101.”

There is one final, very big message to get from this economic research.  Most, if not all of the candidates running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination  (and in fact most Republican politicians in general) have been arguing that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations are too stringent and harming the economy.  Texas governor and current Republican presidential frontrunner Rick Perry has been the most vocal in these attacks on the EPA, but even relatively moderate Republicans like Senator Susan Collins of Maine have joined in the attacks on “EPA over-regulation.”

These studies show that this is exactly the wrong approach.  Air pollution emissions (especially SO2 and CO2) are under-regulated, and increased environmental regulation of these pollutants would benefit the US economy (not to mention public health, both nationally and internationally).  Unfortunately, as we’ve seen time and time again in recent years, scientific and economic research has little influence over today’s Republican politicians.

by dana1981 in Skeptical Science.

36 Responses to Economics Stunner: “Oil and Coal-Fired Power Plants Have Air Pollution Damages Larger Than Their Value Added.”

  1. David B. Benson says:

    Where wind power comes in natgas burners are sure to follow. Examples are ERCOT (Texas) and the Pacific Northwest.

  2. Michael Tucker says:

    “Regulations kill jobs” is just one of many Republican lies! They deal in dogma, propaganda and lies. That is all they have. They are not interested in the US economy and they really do not care at all what happens to the environment.

  3. prokaryotes says:

    Hundreds of small and medium-scale earthquakes have been rattling the area around Guy, Ark., and residents say wastewater injection wells being drilled in their area are to blame.

    “What we have is a correlation between seismicity, and the time and location of saltwater injection,” Stump said. “What we don’t have is complete information about the subsurface structure in the area – things like the porosity and permeability of the rock, the fluid path and how that might induce an earthquake.”

  4. David B. Benson says:

    The stunner for me is the terrible GED/VA for sweage treatment facilities. I fail to comprehend how this can be.

  5. John Tucker says:

    Not to mention other partial solutions.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    This is an extremely important summary, Joe. Since MSM will ignore it, I suggest that you drop it in leaflet form from small airplanes, including over Page, Arizona, and almost anywhere in the Midwest or South.

  7. Tim says:

    The thing these economists are missing is that they have failed to account for the GOP’s very different estimates of the value of human being’s health. In the view of the modern conservative, asthma, lung cancer, and emphysema are just not a problem, you see. The people who matter, the wealthy, can locate their gated communities in places where particulate pollution and poisoned ground water from leeching of heavy metals from coal-ash dust won’t bother the people who are valuable.

    See, you’ve got it all wrong: the economics of coal-burning all works out if you’d just properly devalue the people who are killed by it.

  8. dana1981 says:

    Thanks for the re-post, Joe, and for catching that the MMN11 social cost of carbon is in tons of *carbon* rather than tons of CO2. Actually if you replace “per ton of carbon” with “per ton of CO2″, then their paper makes reasonable estimates of the true costs, which is why I thought that was the metric they were using. Alas, the paper is too conservative by at least a factor of 4, and yet they still find massive external costs of coal. It’s hard to understand why MMN underestimate the social cost of carbon by such a large margin.

    I’m in the process of drafting up a correction to my post to reflect the C vs. CO2 error.

  9. David B. Benson says:

    Ah. From MMN11 “for example, this paper quantifies the damages due to air pollution emissions from sewage treatment facilities, but it does not report the benefits stemming
    from water pollution control.”

  10. David B. Benson says:

    There is also the ExternE studies from Europe which come to much the same conclusions regarding electric power production methods.

  11. Colorado Bob says:

    Dear Joe –
    One Third of Thailand is under water.

  12. Colorado Bob says:

    Dear Joe –
    Nothing, I mean nothing in the last 20 Million Years comes close to us.
    I saw a new way to see all this , ….. Half of all the copper ever mined , has been dug-up in the last 25 years.

  13. Colorado Bob says:

    Prove me wrong, NYT’s.

  14. Colorado Bob says:

    Here’s the Bangkok Post –
    Build underground tanks to store water

    * Published: 14/10/2011 at 12:00 AM

    Why don’t Thai drainage authorities follow a Japanese idea?
    In America, there is a guy named Lancaster.

  15. Colorado Bob says:

    a guy named Lancaster.

    Give this guy a few grand, and put him on TV, and we save several Million Gallons of water.

  16. Colorado Bob says:

    Brad Lancaster makes saving water , the coolest job you’ll ever have.

  17. Colorado Bob says:

    Brad Lancaster lives in southern Az.

  18. Sissa Pagels says:

    Hi Joe,

    I’m Sissa Pagels from Sweden. Thank you for a great blog, I’ve been following it for about 6 months now and I really enjoy it!

    I stumbled across this unknown video of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus. I think the video is beautiful and inspiring and has an important message to share. I makes you feel very powerful. Maybe it would be something that other Climate Progress-readers would appreciate too!!


    Sissa Pagels

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Politics in Australia is a cavalcade of lies, big and small. When I first became aware of politics, several Ice Ages ago, to be caught out lying was the end of your career. Today, to tell the truth, address the public honestly and in a manner that infers they have at the least the intelligence required to chew gum and break wind simultaneously or mount a principled rather than expedient argument, are all seen as signs of ‘unelectability’. We are endlessly indoctrinated in this banal worldview by the MSM, with that Father of Lies, Murdoch’s, apparat leading the way.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Tim, it’s even more depraved than that. Ill-health, chronic disease and an added burden of morbidity are all fabulous business opportunities for the medical-industrial complex, of private health, private insurance and BigPharma. Good health and preventative medicine are anathema, profit destroying Communism fit only for hell-holes like Cuba.

  21. Davos says:

    So what does this all mean for our future energy..?

    I see that it does indicate that solar/wind prices ‘should’ be competitive or better than the ‘artificial’ price of oil/gas, but doesn’t it also mean that US energy consumers “should” be paying twice as much (at least) for their energy? How is that going to fly?

    Moreover, if we take Gas/nuclear/biomass off the table, is anyone really claiming that all the world’s energy needs can be met just with solar/wind power? How can that be practical even if you declare that “it simply has to happen”?

  22. Joe Romm says:

    That’s Nordhaus.

  23. John McCormick says:

    Tim, I can sum up the rethugs’ view on the value of humans: their concern begins at conception and ends at birth.

  24. Joan Savage says:

    From #7 exchange between dana1981 and Joe Romm, I gather there is still a long way to go towards a common economic view of costs of carbon emissions. How close is it? That would be a foundation to a deeper policy discussion of Bob Inglis’s carbon tax proposal, brought to CP readers attention in a post on October 3.

  25. joyce says:

    Brad was the inspiration for my cistern system. His books are great–but see him in person, or go to one of his workshops.

  26. Joe Romm says:

    Just to clarifiy, Dana didn’t realize that Nordhaus was using his typical absurdly low CO2 price. It is certainly true that the mainstream economics profession simply doesn’t get it.

  27. “is anyone really claiming that all the world’s energy needs can be met just with solar/wind power?”

    By the end of this century, it is practical for virtually all of the world’s energy needs to be met with net zero emissions.

    Of course, it has to be phased in gradually. The first step would be for the US and other developed nations to implement a cap-and-trade that would cut CO2 emissions 80% by 2050. That is what Waxman-Markey would have done, and when the Congressional Budget Office analyzed the bill, it found that it was economically practical.

  28. I meant: “net zero carbon emissions.”

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    All well and good Charles, but we don’t have until 2050, let alone the end of the century to gradually adjust. The crisis is here, the collapse is occurring now. ‘The situation is hopeless-we must take the next step’- immediately.

  30. David B. Benson says:

    Davos — I see no way to have a reliable, on demand, low carbon electricity supply without a substantial portion being nuclear; most of the world doesn’t have the hydro potential and biomass will always be a boutique solution in that market.

  31. David B. Benson says:

    The final sentence from MMN11: “While private scholars can make provisional estimates of the
    present kind, a full set of accounts needs the full-time staff, professional expertise,
    and access to proprietary source data that only a government agency possesses.”
    I found that a bit surprising.

    With regard to burning natgas, MMN11 appears not to have taken into account various leakages in the natgas supply system nor the CO2 produced by burning natgas to pump the natgas all around.

  32. Joe Bftsplk says:

    Dr. David Archer, professor of geophysical sciences at U of Chicago ended his book “The Long Thaw: How Humans are Changing the Next 100,000 years of Earth’s Climate” with a related analogy about the use of fossil fuel.

    He began by pointing out that burning one gallon of gasoline yields about 2500 kilocalories of energy.

    “If we add up the total amount of energy trapped by the CO2 from the gallon of gas over its atmospheric lifetime, we find that our gallon of gasoline ultimately traps one hundred billion kilo-calories (100,000,000,000 k Cal) of useless and unwanted greenhouse heat. The bad energy from burning that gallon ultimately outweighs the good energy by a factor of about 40 million.”

  33. Jörg Haas says:

    Maybe worth looking at . A McKinsey led study based on input from most major utilities in Europe plus clean tech companies. Concluding that decarbonisation of EU power sector until 2050 is doable with varying shares of renewables: 40% – 60% – 80% – 100%. All of them similar in price of electricity and all of the doable with the same system reliability that we are used to.
    If Europe can do it – why could America not do it?

  34. James Newberry says:

    RE: “As but one example, the relatively Conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) noted back in 2008 that just to stabilize at 550 ppm, which would likely still be catastrophic for humanity, you’d need a price of “$90/tonne of CO2 in 2030,” which is to say $220 a metric ton of carbon.”

    I may be mistaken Joe, but I thought the conversion between carbon and carbon dioxide is the molecular weight ratio of 44/12 = 3.666. This would bring the $220 figure to $330 instead, if this is so.

    Either way, the real value of the climate is priceless. Which means the real cost of oxidizing fossil carbon today is infinite, especially since it is matter, not an “energy resource.” Furthermore, the climate seems to be “spring loaded.”

    Fossil carbon burning is an existential (Ponzi scheme) racket based on supreme universal ignorance and injustice, in my personal opinion. As for the price of carbon, we did not tax slavery, we outlawed it.

  35. Joe Romm says:

    Thanks, yes. A silly mistake.