Earth & Energy

Cheap energy doesn’t include climate, health costs, researcher says

Consumers have enjoyed gasoline prices barely above $2 a gallon this winter. But they should be paying $3.80 more, says a Duke University researcher.

Climate scientist Drew Shindell published a paper last week that factored in the environmental and health costs of the energy sources that power the nation.

The social cost of diesel fuel, he calculated, is $4.80 a gallon higher than the pump price. Natural gas more than doubles. Coal-fired electricity quadruples. But solar and wind energy gets cheaper.

The difference is in the hidden costs of air pollutants that are not included in market prices: Illnesses caused by air pollution, higher healthcare costs, lower crop yields, more damage from floods and other extreme weather.

“We’re making decisions based on misleading costs,” Shindell said in a release on the study.

Shindell’s calculations built on methodology the federal government has used since 2010 to put a number on the social costs of carbon. He extended it to wide array of pollutants and impacts.

The calculations are complex, and Shindell acknowledges there’s room for debate in assigning values to air emissions. A recent Stanford study, for instance, found the social costs of carbon are six times higher than the government estimates.

But he says it’s clear “the current assigned price of zero is not the right value.”

Shindell’s paper was published Feb. 26 in the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change.