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Testimony for a Hearing on the Climate and Health Impacts of Coal

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Jonathan Buonocore, Program Leader for our Climate, Energy, and Health program, provided evidence on the climate and health impacts of coal-fired power plants during his testimony at a hearing at the Massachusetts State House on November 12, 2013. Bill H.2935—An Act to Transition to a Clean Energy Commonwealth—would transition Massachusetts away from coal by 2020.

I am Jonathan Buonocore, a research fellow at the Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), and I will receive a doctoral degree from the HSPH Department of Environmental Health later this month. In my dissertation and other work, I have been a part of a number of published scientific papers on health impacts of energy, and I am providing evidence on H.2935, An Act to Transition to a Clean Energy Commonwealth.

A vast body of published scientific research has demonstrated that electricity from coal-fired power plants has a substantial impact on public health and on the climate. These impacts occur throughout the entire life cycle of electricity generation from coal—from mining, to transportation, to emissions from coal-fired power plants. When monetized, these impacts can add up to approximately double to triple the retail cost of electricity.

The most important impacts to residents of Massachusetts are emissions of greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change; and emissions of fine particulates and sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which form “secondary fine particulates,” both of which can impact health. The primary greenhouse gas emissions are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, which are emitted directly from power plants, and methane leakage from coal mines.

A recent report published by the U.S. Global Change Research Program found that climate change will have impacts in New England, including:

  • An increase in the number of extremely hot summer days, which can increase the risk of heat stress and heat stroke, particularly in elderly populations
  • Adversely affect the ability to grow apples and cranberries in the region
  • Increase the risk of flooding events; Boston is already investing in adaptation measures
  • Harm winter tourism and recreation activities, such as skiing and snowboarding
  • Lengthen the allergy season
  • Exacerbate existing air pollution problems

Emissions from electricity generation are major contributors to both ambient fine particulate matter and ozone. In 2011, over 80 percent of these emissions originated from coal-fired power plants. These pollutants contribute to an increased risk of respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma, and cardiovascular disease. They can also lead to premature death, particularly from cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Projections from the EPA Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards indicate that, in 2016, between 17,000 and 44,000 deaths in the U.S. will be attributable to emissions from coal-fired power plants in the U.S.—and these projections include reductions in emissions under present regulations.

This is not an exhaustive description of the life cycle impacts of coal-derived electricity. However, these impacts to climate and air quality represent the major known impacts occurring in Massachusetts.

In summary, the monetized costs to health and the climate from generating electricity from coal are higher than the retail cost of the electricity that is generated, and are higher than the overall value that electricity from coal adds to the economy. This discrepancy should be considered in your decisions involving H.2935, An Act to Transition to a Clean Energy Commonwealth.

Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH

Aaron Bernstein is the Interim Director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics.

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