As Jon Stewart reminded us in a bitterly funny shtick a couple of months ago, every U.S. President since Nixon has bemoaned our addiction to oil and promised to wean the nation ASAP. But what about our addiction to coal?
On the environmental scorecard, coal sets new lows for mountaintop removal, air and water pollution and climate change. The pollution that pours out of the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants causes an estimated $62 billion in public health damage a year (mostly heart and respiratory illnesses).
What coal has going for it is its price–compared to oil, gas and renewables, coal is cheap. Or is it? A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that many states import coal from faraway states and foreign shores. 38 states are net importers of coal, spending $25 billion a year with nothing to show for it–these states burn money on coal which is then burned to generate electricity; in the end, they have nothing–no jobs, no revenue, no local energy infrastructure, just polluted air and soaring unemployment.
Most of the coal we import comes from Colombia, Venezuela and Indonesia, not exactly next-door neighbors. Even our own domestic coal travels longs distances from mines to power plants. Georgia, for example, buys $540 million worth of coal from Wyoming and Colorado (plus another $97 million from Colombia).
Coal-importing states have much to gain by shifting their expenditures from coal to energy efficiency and renewables. Energy conservation and local energy production mean local jobs and revenue, better air quality and resilience in the face of an uncertain energy future. I’m tempted to call such a shift a “no-brainer,” but it seems that “no-brainers” are usually “non-starters” politically (my favorite example being our refusal to lower the speed limit to 55 mph for optimal fuel efficiency and highway safety).
As a nation, we have a lot of unhealthy and supposedly cheap addictions (bad food, bad fuel, fast cars). But when we pause to factor in the hidden costs of these habits, they’re not so cheap after all. And our economy, our waistlines and our planet cannot afford to indulge them any longer.