Power Plant Carbon Pollution: Unlimited and Unpriced?

I’m starting to think about my testimony before the EPA later this week. I’ll be speaking about their proposed carbon standards for coal and gas-fired electric plants. What’s at stake is this: How much pollution should utilities be permitted to dump into the atmosphere – for you, me and our children to pay for in health, infrastructure and climate disruption costs?

The answer would seem to be pretty simple, wouldn’t it? It’s clearly wrong for a buyer and seller to enjoy all the benefits of a transaction, and then leave part of the cost for everyone else to pick up – what they sometimes call “externalities.”  It’s not even all that controversial – I can’t dump my motor oil in the river; and I can’t toss my garbage in my neighbor’s yard. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Someone else shouldn’t have to pay the cleanup costs, the medical bills or suffer a lower quality of life. If it’s my mess, it’s mine to clean up.

Even my three-year-old granddaughter knows this: Before you play another game, you clean up the mess from your last one. Grandpa and Nana have better things to do.

Picture1 (3)In the case of coal-fired power plants, perhaps we once thought that the atmosphere was a mostly infinite resource. Utilities could burn as much coal as they wanted; we could buy the cheap electricity; and maybe there wouldn’t be too much collateral damage for others to deal with.

But we’ve learned otherwise. An epidemic of respiratory diseases has beset America’s children, especially the poor who often live downwind of power plants. Elevated mercury levels – a byproduct of coal burning – are found in one in eight American women of childbearing age, often resulting in birth defects and neurological disorders. And climate disruptions from unprecedented carbon emissions are coming home to roost in the form of all sorts of extreme weather. Most recently, millions of American coastal dwellers are now getting stuck with the carbon tab in the form of skyrocketing flood insurance premiums associated with rising sea levels and more intense storms.

We know this is wrong. I pay a measly fourteen cents per kilowatt-hour for my electricity; the utility makes a tidy profit; and you lose your home because you can’t afford the flood insurance premiums.

It’s so obviously wrong, that we have to wonder why it’s gone on so long, and how so many can still argue against efforts to redress the injustice. Personally, I think the reason is one of sheer scale and obscure connections: There are so many of us who benefit from this shady deal; and there are so many others who suffer the burdens; and the specific causal links among perpetrators and victims are so hard to prove with specificity – let alone quantify.

But that has begun to change. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has been working on the matter. In 2010, they produced a study that went a long way toward setting the price tag that the public is picking up for the coal companies and the utilities. It’s called The Hidden Cost of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use. At 507 pages, I can’t recommend it for your next beach vacation, but you can download it for free.  

And if you want to know how much the coal and utility companies are leaving for you to pay, it’s a must-read. That’s because you just won’t believe how much money they expect you to contribute to their profits. Here’s the bottom line: Even if you COMPLETELY IGNORE CLIMATE CHANGE, coal burned in a single year by U.S. electric plants costs everyone else on the planet another $62 billion in “unpriced costs,” or externalities. That’s without any costs related to carbon emissions – only the cost of human health and environmental degradation from sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, heavy metals and particulate matter or smog.

$62 billion in one year: that’s a tax of about $10 levied on every human on Earth – paid in the form of health costs and environmental degradation – borne for the profit of American coal and electric companies. And that includes the one billion humans who make less than $1 per day.

I suspect I know what you’re thinking. Who are these scientists? These numbers are mind-boggling. Can I really believe this stuff?

Well for starters, this is the Academy set up by Abraham Lincoln, precisely for the purpose of weighing in with authority on complex matters beyond the reach of politicians and most laypersons. For a century and a half, they’ve delivered the best available scientific advice to the most advanced nation on earth.

And at this point, their analysis gets even more jarring. That’s because climate effects constitute the largest component of externalities from burning coal. But they’re not easy to estimate. How fast will polar ice melt? How fast will sea levels actually rise? How long will it take for farmland to turn to deserts? How long for river systems to dry up with disappearing glaciers? How quickly will food prices increase under extreme climate stresses? How many more species will succumb to rapidly changing climates and acidic oceans?

These things can be estimated, but the National Academy admits that the related unpriced costs are subject to a pretty wide range of possible outcomes. But if we are alarmed at a $62 billion public subsidy every year for American coal companies EXCLUDING climate change, then a further annual climate-specific tax of up to $200 billion is likely to spoil your whole afternoon.

So let’s picture the economic reality as the NAS tells us it really is for Earth’s seven billion human souls. It’s as though someone shows up at your door every year and collects as much as forty bucks from everyone in your family. You can’t refuse, because there’s no way to wiggle out of payment. They do it to you and everyone you know. And if you happen to be reasonably comfortable, keep in mind that they squeeze the same payment out of every Ugandan subsistence farmer and every Bangladeshi seamstress. Everyone.

So, into this mess steps the much-reviled EPA. They’ve proposed rules that limit how much carbon coal-fired power plants can emit per kilowatt/hour of electricity. You’ll hear, no doubt, that this is part of a “war on coal.” You’ll hear that we just can’t afford it (whoever “we” are). But perspective is everything, isn’t it? Because if you’ve been sticking hundreds of billions of dollars in unpriced costs to the people of the world for so long, any restrictions on the right of unlimited pollution might well seem like war.

But pollution is not free. The Earth’s atmosphere is not infinite. We are engaged in an unsupervised experiment on the Creation and its once-stable climate.  We are experimenting on our children and grandchildren. And we are taxing the world’s people for the private benefit of American coal companies.

For the love of God, something has got to change. Maybe that’s what I’ll tell the EPA.

One thought on “Power Plant Carbon Pollution: Unlimited and Unpriced?

  1. Pingback: Psst! Wanna Join the War on Coal? | BelovedPlanet

Leave a Reply