Shocking New Report: Hidden Costs of Burning Fossil Fuel Energy are Big

Without considering climate change, ecosystem destruction or risks to national security, power production in 2005 exacted $120 billion in costs to society not counted in utility bills, according the a U.S. National Research Council report released this week. Bottom line:  Hidden costs of burning fossil fuel energy are big. Shocking no? Uh, not really. Important report anyway? Maybe.

The NRC issued this report at the request of Congress, which is very concerned about the unhidden costs of avoiding the hidden costs as it relates to passing any new environmental laws.

So, what did the NRC consider when coming up with the $120 billion figure: costs of health problems from air pollution in electricity generation and transportation. Nearly $62 billion of the $120 billion in costs are related to electricity generation from coal and another $56 billion in costs were from motor vehicles (read: oil). The report also considered costs from natural gas, nuclear power, and renewable energy generation but found they contributed a relatively small amount to hidden costs.

It may seem crazy to you that the NRC in coming up with a total figure for the cost of energy production that NRC omitted ecosystem destruction, national security, and climate change. But these kinds of omissions are commonplace in the in-exact practice of evaluating costs and benefits of environmental policies. So, let’s take a look at the three big ticket items not considered:

Ecosystem destruction

Fossil fuel extraction is hugely polluting. Whether we are talking about blowing the tops off mountains to expose coal seams or drilling for oil, the process releases all sorts of pollutants into the surrounding environment. In spite of claims by drilling companies that they are a new generation of responsible extractors, there are still regular accidents, spills, and ridiculous practices like dumping mining debris into stream beds.

National security

Proceeds from oil is funding unstable nations, dictators, and terrorists all over the world. It would be extremely hard for the NRC to parse out exactly what percentage of U.S. military involvement or domestic security costs are related to oil, but it is related.

Climate change

Costs associated with climate change have the potential to dwarf all others.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council,

Four global warming impacts alone — hurricane damage, real estate losses, energy costs, and water costs — will come with a price tag of 1.8 percent of U.S. GDP, or almost $1.9 trillion annually (in today’s dollars) by 2100.

Now what?

We could, and no doubt the fossil fuel industry will, pick apart the NRC analysis all day, but they make a big important point with this figure: Our energy production costs far more than the figure on the utility bill and those costs must be considered.

Last March, President Obama called on Congress to pass a bill that “makes clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy.” Renewable energy is at an economic disadvantage because fossil fuel energies have received generous direct government subsidies and been allowed to foist their real costs on the greater society for a hundred years. Senators Kerry and Boxer recently introduced a bill that should start to shift us away from dirty fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. If you have already signed the petition supporting the bill, please tell your friends to do the same.

Power plant pollution image by Flickr user jamesjordan / CC BY-ND 2.0


LMj Sunshine

Sad, thank you for info.

LMj Sunshine

Sad, thank you for info.

LMj Sunshine

Sad, thank you for info.

LMj Sunshine

Sad, thank you for info.

LMj Sunshine

Sad, thank you for info.

Janine H.
Janine H.5 years ago

This is a very sad story. Other animals and plants have to go only because "we" humans do not want to share the world with other life forms, these life forms "we" would not eat (vegetarian food is not a bad idea, or eating with conscience as the so called primitive cultures did and still do, if they still exist. No meat/fish every day). "We" destroy everything around us and "we" forget, that everything is important to survive, too.

As little child i thought that rain is when God and the angels cry - because "we" humans have forgotten that we need this "intelligence", someone who could help... if "we" hadn't turned away for many centuries ago...

"Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten." (Native American proverb)

"We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not yet learned the simple art of living together as brothers." (Martin Luther King)

Gregory A.
Greg Amour6 years ago

So what doesn't President obama understand? I am disappointed in his cowing to GOP blacmailers over Clean air act. Good to know GOP supports money over your childrn's health.

Michel T.
Michel T.7 years ago

A way to greatly reduce the gas emissions would be to prohibit directly the car producers from producing Cars that can exceed the maximum speed limit, except for the police and the paramedics. This way, the motor would consume much less energy, the motor would cost much less to produce and we'd get a lot less car accidents. The car accidents would have less severe casualties. This would save the health care system billions of dollars. No one would get speed fines. It's all a win-win situation.

Lesley B.
Lesley B.7 years ago

Unfortunately money not morals seems to sway Congress

Annie Bringloe
Annie B.7 years ago

The Natural Resources Defense Council Report is well worth reading. They step back and look at the big picture including the mid and long term. Email your Congress person and Senators and ask them to consider both the NRDC report and the NRC report. They won't get the full story without reading both reports!