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:
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.
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.
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.
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.