A while back I commented on a post over at Common Tragedies, an excellent environmental economics blog of recent vintage. As is my inimitable style, my comments were hastily written and full of wild generalizations.

One had to do with the health externalities of coal burning, which I alleged were extensive. Recently, an email to the post’s author came to my rescue:

I’m just commenting on your last note. You shouldn’t be so dismissive of the health effects from eliminating coal. Asthma is only one small health effect of PM, SOx, and NOx. The National Association of Clean Air Agencies note that Electrical Generating Units (EGU’s) emit 2/3s of the nation’s SO2 and a quarter of the nation’s NOx. Over 70 percent of them are more than 25-50 years old and 50 times worse than modern coal-fired technology. For example, EPA estimated that its top 12 FY 2007 civil air enforcement cases will result in $3.8 billion in health benefits annually from the consent decrees requiring plants to install new technology. Of those top 12 air cases, half of them (78 percent by emissions) were New Source Review cases against coal fired power plants. That’s 500 fewer premature deaths, 1000 emergency room visits, 1500 cases of bronchitis, 1000 non-fatal heart attacks, 8000 cases of aggravated asthma, and 50,000 days of missed school avoided each year from 2007 cases alone. That 250,000 tons (507 million pounds) of pollution reduced, is < 1.5% of the 17.5 million tons of EGU emissions in 2001. Those estimates are based on lots of research on the health effects of PM, and are probably on the low side. Other mortality estimates would yield nearly twice those results. As a national average, each ton of PM reduced is up to $300,000 in health benefits and each ton of SOx is up to $45,000. When you’re talking about 17.5 million tons of emissions from EGUs, that’s a lot of health benefits to consider. Let alone the effects of CO2 (EGUs account for 40 percent of US emissions), mercury (EGUs account for approximately 33 percent of US emissions), and other air toxics (at least 67 different pollutants). Sometimes it pays to look beyond the world of CO2 and climate change. However, as you noted before, the Clean Air Interstate Rule, Clean Air Act New Source Review, and mercury regulations are in place to address some of the emissions.

There you have it. The only thing I’d add is to reference this important study by the government of Ontario about the costs and benefits of replacing coal-fired generation. It found:

The study found a relationship between increased air pollution due to coal-fired electricity generation and up to 668 premature deaths, 928 hospital admissions, 1,100 emergency room visits and 333,660 minor illnesses such as headaches, coughing and other respiratory symptoms, per year.

The study compared the financial, health and environmental costs of four different scenarios of electricity generation in Ontario. With an annual cost of $4.4 billion, coal-fired electricity generation is significantly more expensive than the other options considered, the study found.

Coal isn’t cheap.