Grossman: Fossil fuel subsidies must go

Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017 6:47 PM

During a break at a renewable energy meeting sponsored by La Plata Electric Association several years ago, a friend and I discussed the pros and cons of generating power with coal. She said that she would favor renewable energy if it didn’t require subsidies.

We both are plagued by asthma and carry expensive inhalers to use if we have trouble catching our breath. My friend admitted that our air would be better if we weren’t downwind from coal burning power plants. However, it bothered her that some of the taxes she paid went to support a photovoltaic manufacturer that had recently declared bankruptcy.

She expressed surprise when I told her that fossil fuel companies also received tax support. Indeed, subsidies for fossil fuels are more than five times larger than subsidies for renewable energy! Worldwide subsidies cost an astounding $444 billion. In the U.S., $24 billion in taxes go to fossil fuel subsidies. That’s more than $73 in taxes for each American, every year!

But subsidies are not the only cost we pay to support the fossil fuel industries, which include coal, oil and natural gas. Burning fossil fuels also costs us all because they are one of the largest causes of climate change – but even that is not the most immediate cost. The most serious cost of fossil fuels is to our health.

It is estimated that in the U.S., 91,045 people die annually as a direct result of air pollution. In addition, air pollution increases the number of people who suffer from emphysema, heart attacks and strokes – and asthma. The World Health Organization says that 36 percent of lung disease deaths, 27 percent of deaths from heart disease and 34 percent of deaths from strokes are caused by air pollution. That is a huge toll – much larger, but more insidious, than the death rate from terrorism.

What does this have to do with population? My goal is for people to be healthy and to have healthy children. Ideally, children should be planned, loved and well cared for. This means that we need to keep our planet healthy, too. Access to voluntary contraception is one of the best ways of assuring these goals. It is also important to minimize our impact on the planet, for our children.

When people think they are saving money by having inexpensive electricity, they don’t know the true cost of their power. What is on the bill from LPEA is only a small fraction of the real cost. It is estimated that health care necessitated by the air pollution from fossil fuel-generated power costs over nine times what we pay the power company! The rate LPEA charges is 12.56¢ per kilowatt-hour. Therefore, the true rate is $1.14 per kilowatt-hour if you include the cost of health care necessitated by air pollution from conventional power sources.

What does this mean to our country? If you look at the period from 2007 to 2015, during which there was rapid growth of solar and wind generation, almost 8,000 lives were saved by not generating electricity with fossil fuel. About $70 billion in health care costs was saved by this renewable energy rather than business as usual.

In addition to more immediate health costs, climate change is already causing damage through storms, forest fires and other destruction. It is difficult to put a value on money saved by averting greenhouse gas emissions, however, the value of keeping 1 metric ton of CO² out of the atmosphere is approximately $35. The savings from slowing climate change in this eight-year period of increasing wind and solar, is estimated to be $56 billion!

Only about 7 percent of our nation’s energy currently comes from wind and solar. Think what a difference it would make to our health if 20 percent or even 50 percent of all the electricity used in the U.S. came from renewables. A first step is to get rid of subsidies to the unhealthy fossil fuel industries.

I agree with what Davin Montoya, LPEA board president, wrote last year: “In fact, I think the entire board supports renewable energy; but it should be done in a responsible way. I will only support a program that benefits the entire membership not a select few.”

My conclusion – knowing the hazards of air pollution from burning coal to generate electricity – is different from Montoya’s. Renewable energy benefits us all in helping us to be healthier and to spend less on medical care.

Richard Grossman practiced obstetrics and gynecology in Durango. Reach him at © Richard Grossman MD, 2017