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Coal’s Hidden Cost in the Billions

A study ordered by Congress says the burning of fossil fuels costs the U.S. $120 billion annually and declares coal the biggest single source of such external expenses. But the damages are likely to be even higher.

The study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences set out to measure the costs not incorporated into the market price of a kilowatt-hour or a gallon of gasoline or diesel. The main budget item: excess mortality. According to the authors, 20,000 people die prematurely every year due to health complications brought on by criteria air pollutants that are released in the process of burning fossil fuels. These toxins include soot particles, which cause lung cancer; nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog; and sulfur dioxide, the main culprit behind acid rain. While these hidden public health costs are caused almost equally by coal and oil, their single biggest source is coal burning, according to the study.

The findings add support to the efforts of regulators and environmentalists who are pushing for stricter regulations of power plant emissions at a time when representatives of the Obama administration and the E.P.A. are debating how to move forward on the issues. However, critics of the status quo say that the estimates that were not incorporated in the study are even more noteworthy than the enormous price tag researcher from the National Academy of Sciences put on the hidden costs of fossil fuels. These include, aside from the environmental damage of global warming or the damages from burning oil for trains, ships, and planes, the damages from current solid waste management practices in the power industry.

Evidence shows that there has been a dramatic increase in coal waste products that are discarded in waterways or stored in ways that endanger human health. In many cases, such disposal or storage is not regulated or existing regulations are not enforced. Consequently, the hidden cost of power production from coal is likely to be significantly higher than the NAS estimate, critics argue. And thus far it is unclear when the Obama administration will push for additional regulation to curb the increase in harmful pollution.

The production of coal waste such as fly ash and other toxic byproducts of generating electricity from coal, in particular, has increased over the past two decades. To some extend this is the result of an increasing demand for electricity in the U.S. However, improvements in air pollution controls have contributed to this trend even more. Contaminants and waste products that used spew through the power plants’ smokestacks are now captured with greater frequency in solid form. As a result, American coal fired power plants produced 45 percent more combustion waste last year than in 1990, some 130 million tons in total. That’s enough to fill a train of box cars stretching from the District of Columbia to Australia.

While some of this waste product is used for construction fill and other “beneficial uses”, the majority is deposited in 1300 storage sites across the country, most of them unregulated and unmonitored. These dumps, which hold huge piles of this solid waste in 46 states, can reach up to 1500 acres. Frequently, they contain heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, all of which the EPA considers a threat to water supply and human health. Different studies have shown that substances leaching from storage sites can cause cancer and birth defects, according to the New York Times.

Yet currently these disposal sites are not subject to federal regulation. Tyson Slocum, an expert in environmental regulation and energy policy with the consumer rights organization Public Citizen in Washington whom I spoke with a few weeks ago, says, “The way we deal with coal combustion products is a big loophole in the country’s waste management system.” He explains that in the absence of federal policy, the states have set requirements, which vary significantly. Alabama, for example, does not regulate the waste product at all, except through nationally mandated water discharge permits. In Texas no groundwater monitoring or engineering requirements exist for utilities that dump coal ash on site.

According to Slocum, these differences in regulation are as much as the result of the varying regional influence of the coal industry as they are the product of tight state budgets. “Many states simply do not have the financial resources to pay the personnel costs necessary to regulate and monitor these waste sites.”

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Retrofitting Coal Power

I got lucky last fall. Together with a friend I toured what many consider America’s most important power plant to see the future of coal. But it turns out: There is nothing to see, really. Long pipes connect the colossal Mountaineer Power Plant on the Ohio River to a structure four stories tall made of metal beams and aluminum tubes. Three hundred feet further down the road a pump station sits listlessly under the winter sky, two pipes disappear in the ground. That’s it. Nothing is moving. But energy companies and politicians along with environmentalists the world over are watching closely what’s happening in New Haven, West Virginia.

Here the United States government and American Electric Power, America’s biggest provider of electricity, are developing a technology that attaches to a coal plant, filters carbon dioxide out of the power plant’s emissions and stores the gas directly underground. Their goal: Pioneering a process that reduces CO2 emissions, which significantly contribute to manmade global warming, and thus creating a future for the most abundant energy resource in the US. The pilot project is the first of it’s kind in the world. It got under way in September and the Department of Energy just announced that it would fund its expansion with $334 million dollars.

The importance of the project becomes clear when we consider the role coal plays in the US economy – and in climate change science. America generates nearly 50 percent of it’s electricity with coal and is home to the lion share of the world’s known coal reserves, some 27 percent. At the same time, the fuel is responsible for 80 percent of all CO2 emissions in the power sector and a big reason why the United States, a country with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, produces more than 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Enter carbon capture and sequestration, as the technology at the 30-year-old Moutaineer plant is called. Or CCS for short. Essentially it consists of a chemical factory and two deep wells, AEP engineer Gary Spitznogle told me. “In the factory smoke that has been diverted from the plant’s chimney is mixed with a chilled ammonia-based chemical. Once the mixture is heated, the carbon dioxide separates itself and is pumped nearly two miles into the earth under a protective layer of sandstone,” explains Spitznogle. There the liquid CO2 displaces saltwater from fine pores in a layer of dolomite and stays put, theoretically of tens of thousands of years.

At the moment AEP is operating a small-scale validation of the technology together with the French company Alstom, which captures less than 2 percent of the CO2 emitted by the power plant. But with the financial assistance of the federal government, equivalent to half the cost of the projects next phase, AEP plans to scale-up the project until 2015. At that point the CCS project is supposed to capture 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from 235 megawatt of the plant’s 1,300 megawatt capacity. With the help of of CCS technology AEP, America’s biggest emitter of CO2, could eliminate all CO2 emissions by retrofitting their fleet of existing coal plants by 2025, says the company’s CEO Mike Morris.

But whether or not those long-term goals are achievable, remains to be seen. From the power generator’s perspective lowering the operating cost is the first priority. CCS is only cost-effective for AEP if the technology consumes 20 percent of the electricity generated in the plant or less – currently the test unit is using 35 percent. At this price coal power could easily cost as much as or more than nuclear or solar power. Project risk analyses also list geological shifts, earthquakes and contamination of water supplies as potential complications, according to the New York Times, all of which worry residents. Most importantly though, in order to move the CO2 emitted by all 600 US coal-plant to places where the gas could be stored underground, a giant national pipeline network would have to be constructed. Many regions of US have little to no storage capacity.

That’s why advocates of renewable energy think CCS the wrong investment. David Holtz, executive Director of Progress Michigan, an environmental group, told the New York Times CCS resembled a methadone cure for addiction. He argues the industry would do better to go cold turkey. “There is no evidence that burying carbon dioxide in the earth is a better strategy than aggressively pursuing alternatives that clearly are better for the environment and will in the long-run be less costly.”

Power generators like AEP disagree and are eager to see the New Haven CCS project supply evidence of coal’s cleaner future. The rest of the world will be watching too.

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