Coal Plants and Pollution

Pollution is commonly defined as the presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance, which has harmful or poisonous effects (OXFORD). Pollution can be put into two categories, stock and fund pollution. Stock pollution is when the environment has no capacity to handle or process the contaminants that are being introduced into the environment. Examples of these pollutants are Lead and Mercury. When talking about this in an economic sense this is described as just damage that the environment would not be able to process on its own. These pollutants one would typically not want to wait for major pollution to occur and then try to create policies to fix it because it would typically be much more expensive and the damage more severe. Fund pollution is pollution that the earth has some absorptive capacity, the earth has some ability to take in the pollution. Meaning if we decrease our polluting habits the earth may be able to recover itself because it can process some of these pollutants naturally like CO2 and SO2 for example. Its just when we create these pollutants in excess is when it becomes an issue.

Reading from the Civil Society Report, “The Hidden costs of Electricity” I decided to focus my attention on the pollutants coal plants produce and its impact on the environment surrounding them. “Coal-fired generation is one of the largest sources of CO2 in the U.S., emitting approximately 2 billion tons nationwide in 2010” (Synapse 22). Although Carbon Dioxide is one of the least abundant green house gases it is still a major contributor to global warming. Coal plants emit pollutants that have negative affects on the human body and the environment. Burning coal is also a leading cause of smog, acid rain, and toxic air pollution. Some additional air pollutants coal plants let out into the environment are Sulfur dioxide, Nitrogen Oxides, Particulate matter (or fly ash) and Mercury (NCSUSA). SO2 causes acid rain, which damages crops, forests, soils, and acidifies lakes and streams as well as get into the lungs and can lead to unsafe chemicals entering our blood streams. Nitrogen Oxides and particulate matter are also have dangerous and negative health affects for our bodies accelerating asthma, causing bronchitis and other illnesses. Coal plants are responsible for more than half of the U.S. human-caused emissions of mercury (NCSUSA). Other pollutants emitted from coal plants include lead, carbon monoxide and arsenic. With some of these pollutants listed above being stock pollutants.

In addition to air quality coal plant pollution also negatively affect the land by coal waste causes soil contamination. The soil beneath these coal plants is heavily contaminated with heavy metals and radioactive material, and it would require extensive remediation before it could be used for any other purposes (Synapse 39). Although plants and vegetation only reduce a slight amount of CO2 from the environment for me it kind of just completes the full circle of coal plants polluting the environment with excess CO2 but then also polluting the land thus hindering the earths absorptive capacity to decrease some of it. Attempting to revert the land to its original fertile condition would be expensive and therefore require some kind of policy to have this occur.

Some emissions can be significantly reduced with readily available pollution controls, but there hasn’t been internalization of environmental damages in the absence of policy intervention (Ian Parry). This then brings up the topic of policies that could be created to decrease these pollutants but also motivate firms to do this by maximizing their profits at the same time. Using the economic assumption that humans will act rationally and in their own interest. Which is why it can be hard to get firms to support environmental protectionism because many firms think myopic or short sided. It’s a large expense now and the pay off may not even happen within our life times. One way to possibly get coal plants to lower emissions is through an emissions tax. This forcing firms to pay per unit of pollution emission that they emit. This avoids a standard policy where the government sets a simple emissions limit on how much a firm can emit because its typically standards across all companies which, wouldn’t make sense because different firms have different cost functions. Most environmental policies today are standard. Taxing each unit of pollution a firm emits into the environment would induce environmental conservation with a profit motivation. This would force coal plants to account for emissions in their profit function. Causing the market to internalize this issue. Coal firms can then run on their own with this tax instead of the government having to pay for additional administrative fees to monitor and regulate pollution per coal firm.

By Cecile Edleman

“Coal Power: Air Pollution.” Union of Concerned Scientists,

Keith, Geoff, and Sarah Jackson. “The Hidden Costs of Electricity: Comparing the Hidden Costs of Power Generation Fuels.” 19 Sept. 2012.

“Synapse Energy |.” Synapse Energy |,

Parry, Ian W.h. “Pollution Taxes and Revenue Recycling.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, vol. 29, no. 3, 1995, doi:10.1006/jeem.1995.1061.

“Pollution | Definition of Pollution in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English, Oxford Dictionaries,


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