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After reading this paper, I was surprised at how much of the conversation regarding coal emissions is focused on the dissipation stage of the coal life cycle. Whenever I think of or discuss coal emissions, the first image that comes to mind is a towering smokestack billowing smoke into the atmosphere. This paper really opened my eyes to just how much energy and emissions make up the extraction, transporting, and processing stages of the coal life cycle. Before reading this paper, I never even thought about factoring these stages into my thought process or conversation. One of the stages that really interested me was the transportation stage, specifically train transportation. The paper stated that 70% of all rail traffic in the United States is dedicated to shipping coal. As the amount of coal production goes up, the number and length of freight trains to transport this coal will also have to increase to keep up with the demand. This leads to the very hotly debated topic in the midwest of rail passage rights. In the midwest, most of the rail corridors and tracks are owned by freight companies. There is a lot of pressure on them to allow the passage of passenger trains on these very tracks. For many small and rural communities, the only transportation linkage and economic stimulant is the train that passes through once or twice a day. Additionally, these trains help to reduce roadway congestion and reduce auto emissions. Many communities which see their daily service decrease and the rate of late arrivals increase blame freight companies for their economic and transportation woes. This has led to local anger towards politicians and freight companies. If coal output and coal transportation traffic increases, it will lead to many more conflicts between freight companies, politicians, and rural communities than we currently see today.

Epstein, Paul R, et al. “Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal.” ANNALS OF THE NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, 2011.

Walker Morris

"Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal" is a fascinating and eye opening study into the real cost of the externalities of coal as a source of energy. The study looks at every angle of coal-based energy from extraction, to processing, all the way to the actual combustion of coal. The results of the study were staggering, and forced me to question why coal is still used for roughly 40% of the world's electricity production. Monetarily, coal is still a cheap option for energy production, but as renewable energy sources, and natural gas become cheaper and more accessible, the monetary cost argument will soon become insufficient. Furthermore, the study reveals that coal production is directly linked to thousands of deaths each and every year. Whether it be miners who die in mining accidents, or former miners who die from CWP (Black Lung); those who chose to work in coal mines risk their lives working in an industry that will eventually be replaced by a safer, more renewable energy source.
While policy makers and coal companies may view the direct risks associated with coal mining as acceptable due to the cheap price of coal, the study reveals that when accounting for the spillover costs associated with coal-based energy, coal is by far the costliest source of energy. The study considers a vast array of variables that relate to the environment and public health in order to measure the cost of the negative externalities associated with coal. I was shocked to learn that virtually every step in the process from coal mining to combustion contributed greatly to these negative externalities. From the risks associated with storing waste in coal slurry ponds, to the numerous pollutants released from coal combustion, it is clear that coal is a very toxic energy source that is impossible to use in a manner that is conscientious towards the environment or public health. In all, the study revealed that the “true” cost of producing coal is $345.3 billion, and the conclusion even suggests that this estimate is on the lower end as it does not consider the impact of coal on plants, animals, and the contribution of coal-based energy production to the greenhouse effect.
While the entire world shares the burden of these negative externalities, it is the communities that rely on coal that suffer the most. As I have explained in a previous blog post, I visited a mountain top removal site two years ago. When visiting the site, I was fortunate enough to speak with several local community members about the effects of mountain top removal mining on their daily lives. They expressed frightening concerns about changes in their quality of drinking water, the destruction of local wildlife, and an increase in flooding caused by the removal of topsoil. However, what they were most concerned about was the potential threat of slurry ponds failing and dumping toxic waste into their community.

Ginny Johnson

As an environmentalist who grew up in West Virginia, I knew from the moment I was conscious of politics that coal mining was bad. I remember watching the local news the night the Upper Big Branch Mine news broke. I knew mining was bad for the environment, and I knew it was dangerous for coal miners to do their jobs. I had also, however, watched countless ads for politicians from both parties who promised to bring back coal, protect coal mines from closing, and touted clean coal as the ultimate solution to all of our problems. I figured we as a state had just decided we were prioritizing profits over people’s lives and wellbeing and the environment. When I took Intro Enviro as a freshman at W&L, I was flabbergasted to learn that coal mining is not only not helping our state’s economy, but actively destroying it.

With that background of my life, I am not at all surprised by the concepts in this article. Issues surrounding coal mining are near and dear to my West Virginian heart, so I already knew about Mountaintop Removal Mining, coal-related health issues, all sorts of environmental damages, etc. What I did not know was the degree to which these elements impacted our economy. How does Kentucky get away with spending $643 million on coal at a loss of $115 million, even without including externalities? More importantly, how can we as a country afford a loss of half a trillion dollars annually to coal mining? I am confounded by our dedication to coal despite its negative environmental and social aspects, but particularly its extreme economic impacts.


“The Full Cost Accounting of Coal” by Epistein assigned ranges of monetary value to the coal production within the United States. Epsitein described each stage of the coal lifestyle as an overall burden to society. Acquisition in the form extraction is the first stage of the proposed lifecycle. Underground mining easily lends toward respiratory illness to miners, while mountaintop removal most directly ties habitat fragmentation and exacerbates natural disasters in already vulnerable environments. The power necessary to both transport, process, and combust the also would be considered in this category. I was surprised to learn the strong correlation between the location of coal combustion plants and cancer development risk. Next, Epstein helps to identify the market reaping the benefits through the use of coal-power, mostly to run the nation’s energy, more specifically the nation’s electricity grid. Finally the dissipation of energy is also an unfortunate part of this process.

The portion of the reading that I found most intriguing was 'the mining and community health' section that emphasized the conclusion highlighted in the “A Troubling Look at the Human Toll of Mountaintop Removal Mining” interview we read before break. Even when socio-economic factors such as smoking habits and obesity are held constant there is still a noticeable difference in general community health in mining communities. The text-to-text connection helps drive home the sheer reality of the social cost of coal specifically in terms of severe public health concerns.


The paper, Full cost account for the life cycle of coal, is a natural extension to many of the discussions we have been partaking in class the past few weeks. It links especially well with the MTR yale article we read before break. The costs of using coal, even compared to other fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, are exorbitantly high. The amount of negative externalities associated with not just the burning of coal, which is often thought of as the only cost of using fossil fuels to generate energy, but also with the exploration, extraction, preparation, and transport are quite staggering. The paper goes into an exhaustive list of the many, many external costs associated with using coal in depth and with quantifying numbers and values assigned to estimated costs. The paradoxical thing about doing such cost accounting is that in reality the true social costs are likely still high above what even the generous estimates describe in the paper. To touch briefly on the strange duality of coal, that is the cost and benefits they bring to communities, I will speak about past research on Centralia, PA which is mentioned by name in the paper. Centralia was a town in PA that was home to a middle American town typical of the 1960s. It was also home to a massive underground coal seam that had been strip mined in the 1930s. The town had placed landfills in the strip mines and in 1962 decided to clean up the strip mine dump by burning it. After the fire was set ablaze it slowly grew out of control and spread into the vast underground coal seams. The fire could not be controlled and over a few years continued to rage beneath the town. Slowly, residents left and it is now a ghost town where underground temperatures remain in excess of 180 degress F and still emits significant amount of greenhouse gases among other emissions.

The figures presented that speak about the efficiency of coal in terms of end-use electricity generation are staggering. The estimate that only 3% of the total energy is then used by lights is a staggering statistic. It is important to recognize the capabilities, innovation, and modernization that coal has granted with world through its relative abundance and cheap cost for generating kinetic and then electrical energy. No doubt, the industrial revolution was solely dependent on the availability and low cost of coal. But that was then, and today we know of the many deleterious effects of suing coal. Coal’s contribution to climate change is perhaps the biggest threat it poses. In 2005 it was responsible for 82% of GHG emission from power generation despite only being responsible for about half of power generation. This points to the obvious inefficiency of coal in terms of electrical generation potential per tonne of GHG emissions. Because coal is so inherently inefficient and dirty I believe, as does the paper, that investment into CCS technology for coal is burdensome, costly, counterintuitive, and simply the wrong way to go about trying to solve a problem. Price/KWh for solar and wind have dropped significantly since this paper was published nearly a decade ago. Because of this the cost of implementing even incremental CCS is fraught with only exacerbating the efficiency of coal. Simply, the OC of CCS for coal is much too high, especially considering the full social cost of preparing coal for use at a power plant. Some surprising statistics included that coal makes up 70% of rail traffic in the US. It is hard to fathom that in the 21st century coal is still so dominate in terms of this nations railways. The EIA estimate and Environmental Law Institute estimates for coal are both staggering amounts at $3.17 and $5.37 billion respectively. According to a study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, if just 10-30% of fossile fuels subsidies were redirected it would pay for a global transition to clean energy. It is a shame that CCS is still being thought of as a way to “clean coal”. Coal is not something that can be cleaned. It is something that must be exterminated.

Christopher Watt

“Still these figure do not represent the full societal and environmental burden of coal” (93)…Well dang, thats disturbing. Considering that the harms of coal could be greater than the estimated $345.3 billion is unfathemable. Epstein et al.’s analysis of the full cost of the life cycle of coal draws the most simple question: why haven’t we figured out an alternative and phased it out, as they recommend?
One of the most interesting findings of the paper to me was their evaluation of social and employment costs (84-85). I often hear arguments for the production of call describing the economic benefits, attributing some degree of poverty in Appalachia to the loss of jobs from the decline in coal jobs. However, it does not seem like coal production does much good for anyone other than the production of energy. MTR has increased the environmental hazards and harms of coal production while also increasing social costs due to the loss of labor intensive jobs. One of the most troubling quotes in this regard is that “as levels of mining increase, so do poverty rates and unemployment rates, while educational attainment rates an household income levels decline” (84).
Obviously this paper is designed to focus on the costs of coal production; however, it would be interesting to see a paper estimating the economic value of benefits produced by the coal industry. It seems that the argument that coal increases economic wellbeing for the area through the provision of jobs has a tough counter to stand up against.

KT Hensler

There was a lot of information in this article that was familiar to me, however, I wish to learn more about. In terms of the comment that, “today’s Appalachian coal mining is undeniably resulting in loss of aquatic species, many of which will never be known” (p 84), I wish to know if there is any way economists measure the lost opportunity of unknown species or biodiversity. Even if this measurement wouldn’t stand strong in a political sense, I think it is an interesting situation.
After reading about the risk assessment performed by the NRC in Kentucky, I was interested in trying to find out what the annual costs of my home state, Pennsylvania, are. I struggled to find anything that had as definite a monetary value as the KY one. The PA 2018 risk assessment for coal mining mentioned costs of things such as transportation, impoundment failure due to seepage, embankment weakness and undermining and resulting in flooding. But, nothing about the health effects of the surrounding communities. There was a small section for CO2, but nothing that considered or measured SO2 as far as I could find. (https://pahmp.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Chapter-4-Risk-Assessment-Human-made-Hazards.pdf)
The article continued to mention that these assessments are often underestimations of the real costs, in the case of KY, 3 times lower than what multiple models would predict otherwise. This made me think about my Env Policy and Law class and how in so many environmental policy decisions, it is difficult to find politicians that will support the upper end of the range.
Another point that I found really interesting was that, “the economic losses from harmful algal blooms are estimated to be over $82 million/year in the United States, based on the most prominent episodes” (p 87). If these costs are taken into consideration, I wonder what potential remediation or prevention would look like. These environmental costs add so many more negative health impacts than the air quality of surrounding communities. The health effects from HABs are entirely different than the respiratory illnesses that are focused on in the coal impact assessments. I wonder, is there a line that is drawn where corporations would never be expected to internalize the costs of health effects? If so, where would that line be drawn and how would one come to that decision?

Jack Citrin

This article seemed to be based all around inappropriate government intervention. I found it very interesting that the government subsidies actually led to all these environmental problems and other negative externalities such as decline in health status around mining areas. This paper helps to explain how the marginal social costs far outweigh the marginal social benefit of using coal to produce electricity. All aspects of coal mining whether it be mountain top removal, transportation, or combustion lead to severe impacts on the environment and on the surrounding human population. In class we talked about how we have enough coal in the U.S to last decades into the future and provide energy. I wonder at what point the negative effects of coal mining will become so great and obvious that the government quits mining for coal and moves on other alternatives of energy.
Furthermore, the United States looks to be making improvements in moving away from coal. One article I read stated that the U.S. cut its share of coal plants to 30% and that the coal industry could be officially retired by 2040. These plants seem to be fearing the threat of large taxes in carbon emissions as a result of global climate change policies. The first step in transitioning to other cleaner energies like solar and wind energy is for the government to stop subsidizing coal industries.

Bridget Bartley

This paper reminded me of a complete look at the most memorable situations we have modeled. I especially appreciated the large limitations section. The addition of such extensive limitations allow us to realize things that both would have strengthened this paper and potentially weakened it. However, it is brought up and emphasized that measurements are largely underestimated due to these limitations and the vast imperfectness. This emphasis is very important.

Last winter, in my ENV 110(?) (intro) course, we were assigned a few documentary viewings and attendance at speakers who came very much centered around this topic. Those that stood out most were viewing The Last Mountain documentary and the speaker that came (unfortunately I can’t remember her name) that presented her photography project on coal mining and its effects on a rural WV community. The Last Mountain was about an area that mountaintop removal had negatively impacted largely, and a coal mining company was planning on performing mountaintop removal on the last mountain in the area. I remember it being very unjust as protestors were fighting to protect the mountain. The speaker that came gave local women cameras to document how coal mining affected their everyday lives. The picture that is ingrained in my mind most is a picture a woman took of her blackened water filter to her house. These areas of the US (these areas being Appalachia) are so disproportionately affected by coal mining and mountaintop removal, it is sad and a large injustice in the accounting of the cost of such practices.

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