Coal may be the most expensive fuel on the planet

Studies show coal to be one of the cheapest electricity-producing fuels.

At 4 to 6 cents per kilowatt hour, who can argue? Solar is dropping from reports of 12 cents (and up) per kWh to an estimated parity with fossil fuels, according to a study by Queen's University. And wind power is getting cheaper. There's also something I just discovered called atmospheric cold megawatts technology, but I digress.

However, coal and its fellow fossil fuel compatriot natural gas and nuclear still have the edge since they're not dependent on weather or the Earth's rotation.

Boiled shoe theory

Coal accounts for more than half U.S. energy production. It's easy to transport, ignite and burns hot. Great stuff if you're a shivering Charlie Chaplin in his classic silent film "The Gold Rush." Key scene is where he eats his boiled shoe.

But coal extraction has become controversial. Mountaintop removal is not pretty. In addition, the nation's 491 coal-fired plants contribute an estimated 48 tons of mercury into the air each year. And dealing with the leftover toxic ash has proved dangerous. Just look at what happened at the Emory River in Tennessee on Dec. 22, 2008 when 1.1 billion gallons of fly-ash slurry burst a containment levy surrounding an 84-acre pond.

Merry Christmas. It was the biggest such spill in the nation's history. And there's potentially more where that came from. Wait for a good 100-year rain.

Cost accounting

Few corporate supporters of fossil fuels ever mention the environmental cost of their preferred energy sources. Most prefer to shuffle that concept to the background. Until recently it's been limited to the fringe -- a rallying cry for only the most hard-core greenies.

Little by little, other groups and individuals are realizing we can't keep burning stuff and get away scott free. The representatives at the Durban Climate Change Conference didn't pass any binding agreements, but most didn't mince words either.

Ban Ki-Moon, United Nations general-secretary, in a speech at the event says governments and the private sector are working together on sustainable energy and extolled it as a way to cut greenhouse gases while reducing poverty and creating economic growth. "Let us prove that we not only know where we are going – and how to get there – but that we are prepared to take collective action that will move us down that road," he says.

Point of no return

Apisai Ielemia takes it even further. As the minister of foreign affairs, trade, tourism, environment and labor for the tiny Pacific island state of Tuvalu, he's well aware of the potential threat behind climate change. "We have no time to wait, and we are only a few inches from the point of no return," he says. Listen to his speech on Democracy Now.

As much as I love's recent TV advertising campaign, coal does have serious drawbacks. Nothing about untold millions of particles of mercury billowing into the atmosphere each year from coal-fired power plants is cost-effec­tive. The dust settles across the country and U.S. waters and works its way into the food chain. Should user groups begin to sue coal producers and utilities for damage compensation, I imagine the cost of electricit­y via the fossil fuel will rise significan­tly.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year has proposed the first-ever national standards for mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollution from power plants. The move is meant, officials say, to "cut harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases, while preventing as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year."

Health effects from coal

The proposed standards are meant to prevent 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 11,000 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year, the EPA says. In addition, the rules are expected to prevent more than 12,000 emergency room visits and hospital admissions and 850,000 days of work missed due to illness.

The 1990 Clean Air Act was supposed to deal with coal emissions. The delay took more than two decades. President Obama is expected to rule on the issue Monday.

"This is not an issue of jobs versus the environment. It's an issue of the American people's public health versus a narrow special interest," writes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a piece on Huffington Post. Bloomberg does say, however, that more than half coal plants already have installed measures to control their mercury emissions.

Mercury the neurotoxin

An October 2003 report by Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants says mercury is a "potent neurotoxin particularly damaging to the development of the fetus, infant and young child." And while coal-fired plants, according to the EPA, are the largest producer of mercury in the environment, they are not the only airborne mercury source.

EPA's December 1997 "Mercury Study Report to Congress" estimates the amount of mercury sent up into U.S. airspace to be 158 tons. That's from trash burning, boilers and natural emissions but most from "combustion sources." Quite a pile, and the majority heads out over the ocean where it comes back in fish.

The Northern States report says the most stringent standards for reducing mercury emissions would remove 96 percent from the stacks of coal-fired power plants while the least would remove only 40 percent. The report's authors say it's a difference of 2 and 28 tons.

Solutions exist but they cost

Some coal-fired power plants already have been retrofit with toxic emissions controls that would meet the most stringent reductions, but for others it would be a problem. For instance, says: "In some cases, these companies simply can’t afford to buy the equipment and for others the needed equipment isn’t commercially available. If this rule is implemented, it would force the shut down of many coal-fired power plants."

According to a Government Accountability Office report from October 2009, some 14 plants with sorbent injection systems installed have complied, "enabling them to meet state or other mercury emission requirements -- generally 80 percent to 90 percent reductions."

The GAO also found that the 14 plants spent an average of $3.6 million on the systems -- "a fraction of the cost of other pollution control devices." The pollution-control systems inject sorbents -- powdery substances to which mercury binds -- into the exhaust from boilers to achieve the reductions, the GAO says. And it says annual cost of buying sorbents is about $675,000, still a modest sum compared to the potential cost to human health down the road.

Health costs bigger

Somebody pays for health effects. Unfortunately when it comes to mercury poisoning, U.S. taxpayers likely will have to pick up the tab.

It's only a matter of time before these not-so-hidden costs begin to be felt and publicized. There will be fallout.

And there will be an accounting of fossil fuels.

Questions will be asked. Just how much does accumulated pollution cost? How much does climate change cost? How much does a fouled Gulf of Mexico cost? How much does that inevitable Arctic Ocean spill cost after an idiot Congress opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to massive drilling?

"Climate policy is based on cost-benefit analysis," says Naomi Klein, author of "The Shock Doctrine." "Now it appears we are waiting until the last possible minute to deal with it."

Photo: San Juan Generating Plant, Farmington, N.M. University of California, Berkeley Geo-Images Project.