'Coal Is The Enemy Of The Human Race'

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Coal is also a very prickly political and economic issue. But if we really do want to stop massive flooding, fires and storms, we're going to have to do something about it. From Grist's David Roberts:

Yesterday, Jessnoted a new paper in the American Economic Review: “Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy.” Brad Johnson has a longer summary here. I want to emphasize the paper’s conclusions and make a few related points. But mostly I want to beg everyone:spread this around. Coal’s net economic effects on the U.S. are poorly understood, to say the least, and this paper’s findings are stunning.

Once you strip away the econ jargon, the paper finds that, on the margin, electricity from coal imposes more damages on the U.S. economy than the electricity is worth. That’s right: The next coal-fired power plant is a net value-subtraction. A parasite, you might say, that will enrich a few executives and shareholders at the public’s expense.

If you’re of a wonky bent, it’s worth digging in. The authors try to establish a framework for integrating air-pollution costs into national accounts — that is, a systematic way of accounting for those “externalities” you’re always hearing about — and come up with something called gross external damages (GED). They calculate GED for several common industries and find that not only coal power, but “solid waste combustion, sewage treatment, stone quarrying, [and] marinas” have air-pollution externalities that exceed their total value added.

But coal power is a parasite in a class by itself, with a GED equal to the combined totals of its three closest competitors. In fact, coal plants “are responsible for more than one-fourth of GED from the entire U.S. economy” — roughly $53 billion in damages a year.

Even in West Virginia, where they're dominated by the coal industry, they're starting to get it:

Half-hysterical politicians and energy moguls accuse the Obama White House of waging a "war on coal" -- but Sen. Jay Rockefeller bravely pointed out that charge isn't true.

In a landmark Senate speech on West Virginia Day, he said the industry should "face reality": Coal is fading because easy-to-reach seams are being depleted, and because the Marcellus gas boom provides cheaper fuel. It's simple economics, dog-eat-dog laws of the marketplace. Federal EPA rules against coal pollution and mountain ravages -- blamed endlessly by some politicians and coal executives -- are merely a small factor in the decline of "black gold."

Rockefeller's stand took courage, because the Mountain State remains heavily dominated by the once-supreme industry. "The shift to a lower-carbon economy is not going away," he said bluntly -- adding that it's a "terrible disservice" to deceive West Virginia mining families into thinking the trend will vanish.

Sometimes we think the hyped-up corporate rage at Obama is mostly a Republican political attempt to taint the Democratic president.


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