Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Health costs of energy use

The Smil reading for this week touches on the environmental impact on pollution from energy usage but gives only passing mention to the health costs.

The United States, which produces six billion tons of carbon dioxide annually (about 25 percent of the world’s emissions), lags behind most industrial nations in imposing environmental regulations. Texas remains one of the most polluted states in the union, with Houston (rated #5 in 2007) and Dallas (#7) consistently ranking among the top 10 most polluted cities in the country by the American Lung Association. The state’s heaviest industrial regions, notably the Houston ship channel and the Golden Triangle in southeast Texas, produce prodigious amounts of sulfur dioxide; nitrogen oxides; benzene; 1,3 butadiene; and particulate matter – all of which are associated with the rising incidences of asthma, heart disease, birth defects, cancer, and neurodegenerative disorders. Asthma alone accounts for over two million emergency room visits, 5000 deaths, and 14 million missed school days per year in the United States, totaling more than $14 billion in health care costs and lost productivity – numbers that are going nowhere but up. Nevertheless, like most other states, Texas has failed to deliver real clean air reform as energy companies easily dodge the Texas Clean Air Act of 1971 and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is sued for failing to enforce the Environmental Protection Agency’s modest emission standards.

Proposals such as a gas tax, cap-and-trade tax, and emissions (or carbon) tax have all been floated as potential economic stimulants toward a greener future. None have become enacted into state or federal law; but of the three, the corporate emissions tax has generated the most consensus among policymakers and economists. Estimates project revenue from an emissions tax at roughly $80 billion in the first year of implementation, based on a rate of $15 per ton of carbon dioxide produced. But more importantly, it would save lives.


  • “State of The Air: 2007” report by the American Lung Association
  • “Breathless in Texas” Austin Chronicle, 6 Apr. 2001
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