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Parker Kellam

The opening sentence of the conclusions says, "The electricity derived from coal is an integral part of our daily lives." This general idea was about the only benefit I found that paper mentioned (granted it never said it was going to address those). That said, I'm curious after reading about all of the costs associated with coal mining, why we have let it continue for so long. It seems like the costs and negative externalities produced far exceed the benefits. If this is the case, why hasn't our innovation of substitution kicked in here?

Monette Carli

Like Parker, I find myself wondering what the benefits of coal are and how they could possibly outweigh all of the negative impacts discussed in this paper. As the paper mentioned, China is the largest consumer of coal. This comes as no surprise to me, as I have seen the level of pollution first-hand. From my trip to China, I remember walking around Shanghai, unable to see the tops of the buildings because the smog was so thick. With such apparent and extreme negative externalities of coal use, I would guess that the Chinese population will start to address the issue and hopefully innovate to provide cleaner energy. Even though coal is an important source of energy that everyone benefits from, it seems possible that the even the health issues alone may start to impose costs much greater than the benefits of coal.

Chantal Iosso

Like the previous two commenters, I wonder why coal has remained widely used. Although some downsides to coal production are not well known, the dangers to air quality and lung health of miners is very established by this point. Some arguments that I have heard about the continued use of coal are its cheapness (obviously) and the fact that people who have grown up in coal mining towns have few alternatives and don’t want to leave their current profession. However, this article seems to suggest that there are few upsides to their job. Between the health risks, the instability of the job, and the connection to poverty and depression, among other things, it doesn’t seem like a particularly desirable thing to cling tightly to. It would be interesting to hear a miner’s perspective on why they wish to remain in their current profession, even if they could be reeducated for free to work in solar energy (a program that the Obama administration offered). One possibility is that the miner’s wages were higher because of the risky nature of the job, and so the lower wages of safer jobs are not attractive. More money now might erase the concern of future health problems.


This paper poses an interesting question in determining the public health damages and the burdens in Appalachia associated with coal mining. The astounding 81% share coal takes of CO2 emissions is of paramount importance, but the value of a human life is arguably of more importance (at least in the short term). I took part in an in-depth reporting project examining government and company-funded benefits for former coal miners suffering from black lung. As part of the project, I traveled to West Virginia to interview former miners and attempt to better understand their struggles. I was taken aback by the effort they had to exert to simply get through half a sentence. Coal mining quite literally took the breath out of many of the men. I learned a great deal about coal mining processes and the corporate scheme that keeps the miners from getting any money for treatment. But the most interesting part of the interview was when we asked the miners if they would tell their own sons not to go into the mines. Each and every one said they not only approved of their sons’ decisions to follow them in mining, but encouraged it. The issue is one of changing a culture, much like many issues economists face in creating policy to improve the environment.

Perhaps this change has to come from the top. It is unrealistic in this moment to call for an end to coal as an electricity source. But if companies such as Westmoreland and Murray were encouraged by subsidies to phase out human labor in mines, fewer miners would die in accidents or as a result of pneumoconiosis. Subsidizing costs for technology and innovation would decrease loss of human life and the quantity of people employed in mines.

Phillip Harmon

Having read this paper, it is unclear to me how exactly estimates for the price of coal consumption given are calculated. I understand that the purpose is to estimate the full cost of coal by taking into account various externalities. My question is what happens to these estimates when coal use is reduced or increased? I would imagine that many of the costs of using coal do not directly scale with changes in coal use. Some things like problems associated with mines which have already been created seem like sunk costs. If these are taken into account when valuing the cost of using coal, then does this not give an overestimation? It would appear that the estimations of price are given at current levels of coal use. At low levels of use would the price of coal decrease along with the reduced externalities or increase because of higher marginal costs resulting from overhead damages?

Paul Callahan

The paper clearly shows the damages that coal has on the environment and even shows the costs associated with coal which seem very high. Such high costs and damages associated with coal would lead us to believe that coal is a very inefficient form of energy, and if true why are we still using it? The costs surely seem to outweigh the benefits. This paper really shows our dependency on coal and how it doesn't look as if it will stop anytime soon. The main problem with cutting coal seems to be that there is too high a dependency on coal by many states as it is a vital import and also an export to their local economies. Their dependency creates a barrier to switching to more renewable and less damaging energy sources.

Michael Robinson

After reading this paper, the earnest use of the phrase “Clean Coal” seems laughable. Intuitively, it seems obvious that coal is a dirty and costly form of energy acquisition. However, this paper did a great job of showing just how many negative externalities that are associated with every step of the process of deriving energy from coal. The huge number of costs listed in Table 1 astounded me especially since you rarely hear these costs being talked about in political discourse about the future of coal. With all these environmental, economic, and health costs of coal it must be awful to live anywhere near these operations. And the cost incurred by those nearby residents must be accounted for in determining the full cost of using coal. I was also surprised to learn that Appalachia is the second biggest hotspot of biodiversity in the United States. This makes the negative environmental impacts an even greater cost of coal.


After having to do a report on Mountain Top Removal last year in my environmental science class I was sort of hoping i would be done with the topic and could go back to pretending that one of the main sources of energy for our school was obtained in a much more sensible way but sadly the topic keeps coming back up. I had already had a general understanding of the topic but seeing all the costs highlighted in such a finite and data driven manner genuinely hurts to read. Its probably because the towns that are near MTR are where the true cost of coal and cheap energy can be seen with my own eyes. Knowing that the health, community, and ecology of the surrounding areas were being destroyed at a cost of $74.6 billion for a benefit of just $8.08 billion overs those years completely baffles me due to the fact that it makes little to no economic sense.

Brianna Rakouska

Like some other people have commented, I also found it surprising that is the dominant method for energy production, considering its overbearing costs. The thing that I found even more surprising though was Kinsey’s comment that coal miners continue to fight for coal jobs and encourage their children to pursue coal mining even after they have seen the direct effects of this lifestyle. This is a good example of market failures through asymmetric information and lack of alternatives in the form of jobs. Transitioning to different forms of energy such as solar or wind or natural gas would not provide communities with the same number of jobs that these economies rely on.
In addition, many of these negative externalities associated with coal are easy to ignore because we do not bear the brunt of many of the problems associated with it, such as the health effects borne by the communities.

Liam Curtin

n this article it was really interesting to see the impact coal actually has on pollution compared to other forms of energy. Before reading this article, I always assumed that petroleum use was the largest cause of pollutants in the atmosphere because we interact with it the most every time we refuel our vehicles, and it always seems that there are new innovations in the auto industry reducing the amount of oil needed to power cars such as hybrids and fully electric vehicles. However, I did not take into account the width of the coal industry. Based off of the media and semi-recent stories of “the death of the American middle class”, which include the closing of some coal mines, I always assumed that the coal industry was in decline and not that relevant to global climate change.
However, after reading the article, I have been introduced to an eye-opening side of the coal industry. In 2005 alone, coal power generation emissions were responsible for about 82% of the US’s greenhouse gas emissions. Another interesting factor that I overlooked is that coal emissions don’t only come from the direct burning of coal for energy. Soot, which is a heat trapping agent that is released from coal, is also an underestimated factor of climate change that is also a product of coal use. Lastly, the nitrogen release from coal combustion leading to algae blooms which basically suffocate aqua-ecosystems is another example of the unexpected consequences of coal use. Ultimately, I believe the issue of coal’s affect on the Earth is downplayed too much in relation to the massive harm it actually causes.

ailyn kelly

Before reading this article I had no background knowledge on the subject of Mountaintop removal and certainly didn’t realize the prevalence of MTR in the United States. The costs of MTR and the damages inflicted upon surrounding communities shocked me, especially when learning that most states expenditures on coal exceed revenue. In the case of Kentucky, coal produces around 528 million in revenues while its expenditures total 643 million. What amazed me after reading this section was that the 115 million net loss accrued by Kentucky didn’t include social expenditures or damages associated with coal mining. It seems that the effects, damages, and costs of coal production and extraction severely outweigh any benefits causing me to wonder why coal remains a major energy source. The fact that the global community still heavily depends on such an inefficient energy source shows our reliance on coal and a lack of substitutes.

AJ Witherell

Prior to reading this article, I did not have much awareness of the negative externalities concerning the production and consumption of coal. Similar to Liam, I had assumed that coal consumption was not as large of a contributor to CO2 emissions as other sources of energy. However, according to the information presented in this research article, I was very wrong. I had very minimal knowledge of the additional carbon emission producers in the process, such as the release of CO2 from decaying methane and the effects of polluted soil during mountaintop removal, just to name a few. Furthermore, I had no understanding of the magnitude of the emissions released.

With all that being said, I think that this paper did a great job outlining all of the various costs associated with each facet of the process. In addition, I believe that the authors of this reading did very well in presenting the information straightforwardly, allowing the reader to understand the true nature of the coal industry and all of its inefficiencies. However, one thing I have noticed between my own reaction and other responses in the comments is that many of us had not been aware of this information. I believe this is primarily due to the fact that we, individually, bear such a small amount of the costs. Overall, I think this article shows the reader how much coal production is affecting our environment, as well as alluding to the fact that we need to find more efficient substitutes as soon as possible if we, as a whole, plan to continue consuming more and more energy as our population grows.

Sam Ross

The Epstein et. al. study is an effective and comprehensive quantification of the full cost of coal utilization. Though the results are certainly prone to some uncertainty, even the low cost estimates are staggering and ultimately render alternative energy sources to be economically competitive. According to the study, the United States’ use of coal yields a total cost of approximately $345 billion each year. As such, this energy source clearly produces immense externalities and is therefore not economically efficient. I was thoroughly impressed (and somewhat horrified) by this study. Not only was their procedure methodical and meticulous, but their findings seem to be practical in shaping public policy. That being said, the research has room for improvement as mentioned in their limitations section. In my opinion, the primary limitation of this paper was their omission of non market valuation. There are a number of impacts (chiefly environmental/ecological) that are not easily quantifiable, but are inherent in the use of coal. Future researchers should incorporate revealed or stated preference techniques (ideally the former) into this analysis to account for these impacts.

Courtney Freudenthal

Like many of my classmates have discussed from this article, it seems that there is strong evidence that using coal as a primary energy source, or energy source at all, has too high of costs associated with the practice. I liked how this article took an in depth approach to all the different costs associated with the coal life cycle. One very small but interesting element stood out to me. In the Transport section, the authors note that about 70 percent of US rail traffic is devoted to coal transportation. It seems to me that one way in which to gain public support over reducing reliance on coal could be to highlight the potential benefits that could come from transferring the 70 percent of current rail road infrastructure usage away from coal and to some other usage. Possibly that could mean transforming those lines to public transit or some other type of rail good transportation that could benefit economic growth. I do not think this one stat is a game changer but I do think it could feed into a positive narrative away from coal.

Rainsford Reel

As this paper states, coal is a huge resource of how we power our lives as citizens. Over the last several years I would argue that the fact that coal usage has numerous negative effects has become common knowledge. However, it is likely that the average citizen does not know exactly the extent of these damages. This paper does a good job of putting a sort of tangible measure to the negative externalities of using coal as a primary fuel and energy source. Though the authors note that the results are limited in the sense that many things associated with this study, and environmental studies in general, are hard to value or monetize, I would argue that even if the figure they offer is a vast overestimate, this process is still a major detriment to our livelihood.
Sort of moving away from that the next step in solving the problem is figuring out a way in which we can convey this issue to the population at large. For me, the message hit home when reading of the MTR process. I for one enjoy the outdoors, and began thinking of what my college experience at W&L would have been like if the Blue Ridge were not present. This thought process encouraged me to be mindful of my energy consumption. As such I would argue that in order to move the public towards actively seeking to solve this problem, we need to tailor messages about the issue in a way that hits home with individuals. However, I realize this is a sort of idealized solution and practically not feasible as it would likely be costly.

Cole Wilbur

Right off the bat, this paper makes a very blunt point regarding the negative effects of coal that is heavily backed with statistical evidence. I found the amount of “hidden costs” associated with coal production to be alarming. As everyday citizens we realize how costly coal can be to our environment, but the amount of additional problems that coal causes is something that is not as obvious. On one hand, it is unfair to the public for these additional costs to be conveniently swept under the rug and hidden. These costs clearly effect society through health effects from underground coal mining to spillage from mountain top removal infecting water sources. For these reasons, I see and agree that the extra costs of coal should be more readily presented to the public so that it can play a larger role in decision-making. However, on the other side of things I wonder how effective making these “hidden” costs more readily available to the public will truly change our coal usage. The coal industry is so large and provides so many jobs for our daily society. I wonder if people will be able to get past the short-term positives of seeing coal as a means of income to understanding its potentially detrimental effects to our future. Blue collar families makeup a large portion of the coal industry workforce and depend on it to provide for their families. I think that even with this information present, many will simply shrug the risk off as a harsh necessity. The idea of incentivizing society to want to move away from coal and toward cleaner energy sources is key. If society can transform its mindset from the idea that coal is essential to our economy to a more open mindset that incorporates cleaner innovative forms of energy, then the transition will be much smoother. Taxes and regulations on the coal industry create a certain stigma against the change and are only making the process more treacherous. By making companies want to change then people will be more readily willing to accept change.

Sal Diaz

I greatly respect and admire the work Epstein et al. put into estimating the costs associated with coal use not factored into the price. However, I do take issue with one aspect of their analysis (though I must note this is through no fault of their own). Attempting to place a dollar figure on human life is not only mathematically complex, but also subject to a great deal of criticism. Yes, they use the EPA's industry standard in their analysis, but that does not make the core of the issue any less morally ambiguous.

I live in a small town just outside of Scranton Pennsylvania, where coal was a vital aspect of our economy for many years. I have personally seen the disastrous health effects the extraction and use of coal has caused. It is so detrimental to my community that my congressman employs a caseworker specifically to help his constituents to receive compensation for black lung cases. People who have never smoked and have lived fairly healthy lifestyles die prematurely due to the disastrous effects of the overuse of coal frequently. So, even though their estimates my be mathematically correct, I think that it may be more accurate to not include human life in a calculation such as this. Instead, it may be more precise, and possibly even more powerful, to conduct the economic estimate, including non-fatal medical costs but not the value of human life, and simply report a death toll along side that figure. Even that method fails to capture quality of life, but it is more clear. In my personal view, this paints a better picture of the true effects of energy sources such as coal.

Will Edmonds

When it comes down to it, the nominal cost is the only thing that most consumers care about, especially poor consumers. The coal industry has used its considerable resources to cover up the market failure in today’s coal market, by discrediting negative externalities and further complications related to coal mining. Trump’s recent legislation undoing new coal mining regulation is the embodiment of this hypothesis. By eliminating the Stream Protection Rule, Trump and his administration have made it clear that their energy agenda will focus on private cost, not social cost. However, the largest coal exporter, China, recently cut 500,000 steel and coal jobs, just as Trump promised to bring jobs back to the industry. Therefore, the question remains, will Americans follow Trump and ignore the externalities associated with coal mining and consumption, or will we consider total social costs when guiding the development of future energy policies.

Justin Pedersen

As a geology major who has investigated energy production distributions and the ramifications associated with different sources of power generation, I recognize the importance of addressing the implications of coal combustion. While the paper primarily focuses on incorporating non-market costs to the private costs of coal-derived power, I would like to focus my blog on a related topic: how economic studies and papers like this have potentially influenced the energy industry. As the paper initiates, the authors reference a number of energy projections made for the year 2030. For example, as the article claims, by 2030, coal will generate 53 percent of all US power. In the six years that have transpired since the publication of this paper, shifts in the energy industry prove that this projection will not be realized. As of 2015, natural gas overtook coal as the main domestic producer of US energy. While coal generated 50 percent of America’s electricity in 2005, according to the US Energy Information Administration, coal presently accounts for 33 percent of domestic power production. As this change shows, contrary to theories of proliferated coal use addressed in the paper, coal combustion has begun to become less substantial.

In order to understand this shift, it is helpful to reflect back upon Krutilla’s “Conservation Reconsidered.” As the paper mentions, technology helps facilitate greater natural resource extraction and replacement, a theory recently manifested in the energy industry. Due to mechanical advances in hydraulic fracking, crude oil and gas companies have accessed greater stocks of natural gas reserves, thereby increasing gas supply and decreasing market prices. Subsequently stemming from cost reduction, natural gas utilization has skyrocketed, culminating in the decreased reliance on coal. When pondering what might have induced such an escalation in R&D, I realize that the wide array of negative externalities attributed to coal, as stressed in Epstein’s paper, induced the creation of extensive, coal-specific regulations. In order to evade such profit-cutting regulations, conventional energy firms have allocated its resources to another resource: natural gas. Thus, by broadcasting the negative externalities of coal, this paper, along with various others, have potentially influenced an environment-promoting shift in the energy industry. By comparing the previous projections to materialized market trends, it is refreshing to realize that some environmental publications can spur beneficial social change. 

Robert Lance

Power origination and marketing is an overwhelmingly intricate, political, and contract oriented industry. While the paper's findings are of course significant, it's impossible to implement any form of policy with short-run results. Power market structures (mainly infrastructure) and state regulations dominate generation of our lighting and air condition. For example, Renewable Portfolio Standards at the state level place minimums or goals for the share of "clean" energy used for power generation. While an environmentally favorable policy, it was not implemented in most of the Southeastern U.S. Why? The infrastructure developments in those states have long catered to coal for primary fuel burn, and the economic impacts of regulating fuel out of the market would be catastrophic for the public in those regions. Although in a boom, the natural gas production and distribution markets in the U.S. are still in their infancy. Utility-Scale solar and wind facilities are extremely capital and time intensive. In Virginia (with voluntary RPS), coal represented roughly 31% of power generation. If that were cut out of the generation mix, do you think Lexington would be the top priority for Dominion's power traders?

I understand the point of article. It was well presented and very thorough. Furthermore, forecasts show coal being priced out of the market gradually, even without the CPP, RPS, or investment/generation tax credits for renewables. Pure economics alone should competitively price coal out of the market within our lifetimes (we need better NG infrastructure and power storage tech for renewables for more access to dispatchable power), and externality concerns are all warranted. However, this is an extremely long and resource intensive process (power costs will rise for all of us individually in the short-run), and public concerns over immediate alternative sources will only make for a more painful transition.


This paper introduced a number of social, economic, and health issues related to the burning of coal for energy. I was honestly very surprised about the amount of health problems were related to coal mining. I knew of the risks associated with the workers in terms of deaths and black lung disease. But I did not take into account the effects on non-worker health as well including the contamination of public water, the release of carcinogenic substances into the air, damage to households caused by explosions. . What I think is the most surprising thing to me within this paper is that, even with ignoring environmental issues, why on earth are so many people so adamant about bringing back the coal industry when it is so dangerous and hazardous not only to the workers but also to local communities. Why a coal miner would want to reopen a mine to continue working rather than get retrained to do something else astounds me. If that worker has access to healthcare then his or her doctor surely must be providing health warnings relating to working in a mine. Obviously the demand for coal is high as it is one of the highest electricity and energy producers worldwide. But why has there not been a bigger push to create a substitute knowing that the coal industry is so damaging to people and the environment? Is powering our house really worth the social cost associated with coal mining? Is there a lack of information in regards to sharing with the public the negative effects of coal mining? Why are so many people supportive of Trump in this debate? Is it because they are blindly following him because of the fact that he wants to introduce jobs in general, or are they actually supportive of the specific introduction of coal jobs? Lastly, what can we do to incentivize people to demand for a substitute to coal? These are some of the questions I think would be interesting to explore in class.
Jack Miller

Chris Shelby

This article does well at determining monetary costs associated with the negative impacts of coal mining. For many towns in Appalachia, coal mining is embedded in the culture and the inhabitants will fight to keep these jobs. Although Kentucky loses $115 million per year due to expenditures on coal, the industry is still supported. The most frustrating aspect of this is that we do have substitutes for coal if we set up the correct infrastructure and change the mining culture. On Monday, Professor Smitka made a good point about the United States being behind in green energy production when he was talking about price discrimination on electricity grids. A country in Europe recently paid people to consume renewable energy because they had so much, yet we still engage in mountaintop removal. The United States is a large country in population and area relative to European countries, so more infrastructure is required. However, the United States consumes less energy per square mile than many other countries, so overly abundant renewable energy is an achievable dream. Coal consumption at the current rate is unacceptable if the country wants to meet its sustainability goals, so we need to make renewable energy sources a higher priority.

James Willey

I think the authors' final suggestions are the most important part of this paper. They propose a very realistic and practical schematic for the most part. For example, they recognize that various regions will need to implement numerous forms of alternative energy sources rather than suggesting a single magic bullet. Similarly, its very insightful to include the recommendations for changes in farming and other land use practices to support the infrastructure involved in a fundamental shift in the power grid. One issue I take with the recommendations is the U.S. centric view. Global costs are incurred from many of the externalities discussed, such as air pollution and green house gas emissions. There should be a global approach to replacing coal, especially when nations such as China consume as much coal as the U.S., the E.U., and Japan combined.

Amanda Meador

I have always read and heard about the negative costs of coal but this article proved that there are so many more affects than I was aware of. I was surprised at how short the report was considering what it seemed as the innumerable costs of the full life cycle of coal. There are so many factors extending and interloping between the health of the planet, people, and the economy. I think the report did a good job of underscoring how complex yet interconnected America’s use of coal is. As it is the primary energy for electricity, coal is not something that can be eliminated in use overnight, yet; as the article attempt to calculate, the total cost of coal returns a negative output. It is fascinating that something the US relies on to function is not an efficient market. This made me think of Krutilla and how the current market is imperfect and not only not providing for future generations but also not providing for the current. Through subsidies and lack of responsibility for health and environmental impacts, our use of coal has been propped up artificially creating greater costs than benefits. The time frame for technological substitutions to fully enter the market has seemed to lag in comparison to the amount of benefits alternative energy production may provide. Maybe as a society we haven’t fully realized or been entirely affected to seriously seek out alternatives even though the full costs of coal show a different picture.

Jalen Twine

Like a student above I am very curious as to why innovation hasn’t kicked in due to all of the insane costs that come with coal mining. I know that there are alternatives to coal for electric power but I wonder how expensive they must be for us to not find a suitable and cheaper alternative. Due to how we talked about China spending 70 times as much as us in government research and development, I find it odd that they have not found some alternative to using coal yet when there are so many obvious costs to health and to the environment. I have pondered this and come to the conclusion that America’s reliance on the private sector for research and development has led to much more ingenuity and innovation that allows us not to rely on coal as much as China.

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