Since many of our elected leaders seem to be worried about costs, they should consider this: fossil fuels cost the United States about $120 billion a year, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences. This cost is measured primarily by thousands of premature deaths from air pollution produced by the burning of these dirty fuels.
The NAS report, "Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use," assessed the costs of various energy sources, including coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, and renewables alternatives like wind and solar.
One caveat: The report focused on the impacts of major pollutants -- including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter -- but did not factor climate change impacts into the cost assessment. However, the NAS acknowledges that the damages caused by each ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere are expected to increase dramatically in the next two decades.
The study found coal to be the costliest of all fossil fuels -- to the tune of $62 billion a year. Indeed, the damage caused by the nation's 406 coal-fired plants is far worse than any other energy source, according to the assessment.
Of course, the report focused only on air pollution so it did not attempt to put a monetary value on damage caused by mining coal. However, the report does acknowledge the environmental problems associated with both underground and surface mines. It seems safe to assume that as the worst of all strip mining, mountaintop removal represents the highest cost in that regard.
Whether it's decapitating mountains to dig it out, smokestack pollution from burning it, to contamination from toxic ash, coal is not only not cheap, it's also dirty and dangerous. Even though coal provides much of our electricity today, and likely will remain a part of the nation's energy portfolio for many more years, now is the time to invest in cleaner alternatives that will wean us from our dependence on coal -- and other dirty fossil fuels -- as a power source.
Meanwhile, Big Oil, Dirty Coal, and other special interests are spending tens of millions of dollars to defend a status quo which sends $1 billion a day overseas to buy oil and costs our economy more than $120 billion every year. It's time to pass comprehensive clean energy reform in order to put America back in control of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet.
This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.