Pollution from burning coal to generate electricity costs the United States $62 billion a year, according to a report released Monday by the National Research Council.
The report, "Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use," attempts to put a dollar value on the costs of various energy sources.
It also examines the use of natural gas, nuclear power and alternatives such as solar and wind to produce electricity, and the hidden costs of transportation and heating fuels.
Overall, the use of energy for electricity, transportation and heating costs the nation $120 billion a year, the report said. The other major hidden cost, according to the report: $56 billion a year caused by motor vehicles.
The report was requested by Congress in 2005, but work on it only began last year. The cost estimates are from 2005 because that is the last year for which complete numbers were available.
The report was requested because Congress anticipated facing choices about national energy policy, and it is being released as climate change legislation that could constrain the use of coal is on the table.
The research council report does not attempt to put a cost of the climate change impacts of burning coal, but said the damages caused by each ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere are expected to increase dramatically in the next two decades.
Instead, the report concentrates on putting a value on the damage to human health, crops, timber yield and buildings and from major pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Most of the costs are estimates of the value lost when lives are shortened by exposure to air pollution.
Coal accounts for about half the electricity produced in the country and more than 90 percent of Kentucky's electricity. Natural gas produces about 20 percent of the electricity with costs that are estimated at less than $1 billion.
The damage caused by the nation's 406 coal-fired plants varied widely, the report said. Ten percent of plants accounted for 43 percent of the damage, while producing only 25 percent of the electricity, the report said.
Maureen L. Cropper, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and co-chairwoman of the committee that produced the report, said the damage caused by the worst plants could be compared to the costs of adding additional equipment to remove pollutants from smoke stacks.
The report does not attempt to put a monetary value on damage caused by mining coal and the nation's 1,600 underground and surface mines.
Jared L. Cohon, the president of Carnegie Mellon University and the committee chairman, said the science of understanding such costs is complicated and still developing.
"We believe the impact on energy use on ecosystems is an important thing to understand better," he said.
The report does note the environmental problems associated with underground and surface mines.
Mountaintop-removal mining "shares the negative externalities of other types of surface mining and has other externalities as well," the report says.
It lists a study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that looked at more than 1,200 stream segments in the southern Appalachians affected by mountaintop removal and the associated valley fills.
That EPA report found increased levels of minerals, including zinc and selenium, in the water; increased stream flow below the valley fills; and slow regrowth of forest because of compacted soils.