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Task force should consider health costs of using fossil fuels

Published November 19, 2010 8:09 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Gov. Gary Herbert's energy task force is currently deliberating on what Utah's future energy choices should be. Are they considering the health consequences of the energy choices we make?

That may seem like a silly question until you realize that no public health advocates are among the 15 members of the task force, and that their recent draft findings don't even mention public health. Given the large amount of research documenting the health effects of air pollution, Utahns should be very concerned about this apparent lack of consideration.

If public health advocates were on the task force they would undoubtedly be focusing on a recent study commissioned by the state of Utah and completed earlier this year. "The Co-Benefits of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency in Utah" study was commissioned during the Huntsman administration and undertaken by Synapse Energy Economic Inc. in association with researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and Tufts University. It was completed and published in January 2010.

This study found that pollution from coal-fired power plants in Utah — even though contributing only a fraction of our total air pollution burden — was responsible for a stunning public health consequence and economic liability. In sum, Utah's dependence on coal leads to 202 premature deaths per year, 154 hospitalizations for respiratory illnesses per year and 175 asthma-related emergency room visits per year, regionally.

This is not an "outlier" estimate, and it is in accord with a recent study by the Clean Air Task Force that estimated that 13,000 premature deaths per year are caused by coal-fired power plant pollution in the United States. The total value of the hidden costs (health and water) of Utah's power plant pollution were estimated to be between $1.7 billion and $2 billion per year, which exceeds the direct cost of electricity generation.

What can be done to reduce these health risks from coal-fired generation? Renewable power carries none of the health risks of fossil-fuel burning. Potential peak energy-generating capacity of Utah's plentiful renewable resources such as wind, solar, and geothermal is nearly 100 times greater than our current peak capacity using existing coal and gas plants.

In addition, there are many energy-efficiency measures that could be easily implemented for significant reductions in demand. A renewable energy standard (25 percent of Utah's electricity generation), along with assertive energy efficiency measures (reducing Utah's energy consumption gradually by 25 percent) would allow retirement of the most polluting of Utah's coal plants and lead to substantial health benefits.

We agree with Herbert that "we can learn from the experience of others" with regard to strategic energy planning. When public health is considered in energy policy in our neighboring states, the end result is to move away from coal to other sources. Nevada's renewable energy standard and factoring in of indirect pollution costs when evaluating power company proposals mean that it generates only 20 percent of its electricity from coal (in Utah, 83 percent of our electricity comes from coal).

In Colorado, the 2010 Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act mandates reduction of key coal-burning pollutants by up to 80 percent by 2017 using a combination of pollution controls, increased natural gas and renewable use, and retirement of older coal plants.

While Utah should be attempting to make such modest attempts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels (especially coal), recent events suggest that we are in fact digging ever deeper for them. State agencies have approved new coal-mining operations near Bryce Canyon, dramatically increased natural gas "fracking" operations in the Uinta Basin, and tar sands developments in southern Utah. Each of these bring health, water, and tourism costs even before the extracted fuels are burned.

As task force members deliberate, we hope they consider the full costs of our continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Gary Kunkel is assistant professor of medicine at the University of Utah and energy policy analyst for Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.