Coal is not least costly technology

This is the third column in a series I have been writing on coal-fired power plants. The series is based on a Ateneo de Manila School of Government policy brief “Striking a Balance: Coal-fired power plants in the Philippines’ Energy Future.” In writing these columns, I acknowledge the collaboration of Purple Romero who also assisted in producing the policy brief.

Coal has often been described as least-cost technology, but this is misleading. When we factor in the health and social impacts of coal on communities—as we should—operating coal-fired power plants bear costs that are unfortunately paid for by people who will be affected the most by the ill effects of CFPPs. These costs are not often accounted  for in the electricity price because they are considered externalities.

These externalities come in the form of health hazards which result from the life-cycle of coal—from mining to disposal of post-combustion waste. Among these stages, combustion generates the most significant amount of hazardous byproducts such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen, oxides of sulfur and a slew of other substances that are carcinogenic. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has reported that out of 187 hazardous air pollutants, 84 are emitted by CFPPs. 

In a previous column, I described how these pollutants harm the environment; the same also result in adverse health impact. Long-term effects of pollutants from CFPPs include respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological diseases.

There is a dearth of studies focusing on the health consequences of operating CFPPs, however in the Philippines. This is a significant gap that we pointed out in our paper. The lack of reliable, comprehensive studies that truly capture the ill effects of CFPPs on the health of Filipinos is a stumbling block to developing policies that are responsive and appropriate. We cited one study conducted by the Alternative Forum for Research in Mindanao on the health impacts borne by the STEAG State Power Plant in Mindanao in host communities during their operations from 2007-2011. 

The study said that there had been more cases of cough and cold among children as compared to the pre-operation period of the CFPPs.  Cases of asthma also increased. The study, however, is limited by the lack of capacity and resources to conduct laboratory tests that could measure ambient air, soil and groundwater quality. Records from barangay health centers are also scant, a consequence of having no established protocol or procedure in collecting and analyzing data on health records.  

What we have then are mostly anecdotal accounts from communities. We conducted a focus group discussion with residents of Limay, Bataan, the area where one CFPP particularly operates. The participants said that the cases of asthma increased after the CFPP began its operations. They also conducted a survey among their own to quantify their observation. These findings, however, would have to be verified with the health records of the municipality and here again, we encounter the same problem of data paucity.     

While this is a serious issue, it also presents local government units the opportunity to invest on capacitating their health centers for them to be able to collect, measure and evaluate relevant data. It also shows why the government must coordinate and work more with civil society in conducting tests on the immediate surroundings of the locality where CFPPs operate. These findings should be accessible and be open to validation by an independent third party.

Companies have taken measures to mitigate pollution by using technologies to increase the efficiency and lessen the emissions of CFPPs. Aside from this, they also have corporate social responsibility programs that are meant to provide health services to communities such as medical and dental missions, free medical check-ups, and Philhealth card distribution. 

Under Energy Regulations 1-94, companies are also mandated to set up a Reforestation, Watershed Management, Health, and Environmental Enhancement Fund. The RWMHEE fund is a form of compensation for communities displaced by CFPP operations. The Department of Energy manages the fund and LGUs can access it by submitting proposals which should fall under the following: water supply system, municipal hospital, medical equipment/facilities and medicinal plant gardens. 

There can be potential overlaps in the utilization of these two mechanisms, however, as CSR projects could actually be funded using money from the RWMHEE fund.  Another thing: the company can also access this fund by way of “deducting their cost incurred to comply with emission, safety, health or environmental standards from contribution to the fund. But the deductions must not be more than 50 percent of the total benefits due in any year. The uncovered cost can be recovered in subsequent years until the full amount is recovered.”  

Greater transparency is then needed—both from the side of companies and the DoE—for the public to be able to verify if the RWMHEE fund is being used independently from CSR projects and vice-versa. This is an important way to build much-needed trust between CFPPs, the government and other stakeholders, strengthen monitoring processes and establish accountability.

Looking at the bigger picture, the externalities of operating CFPPs must stop being looked at as mere “externalities” and must be included in measuring the costs of operating CFPPs. Damaging the health of people is too high of a price to pay to just be ignored.   

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Topics: Dean Tony La Viña , Coal is not least costly technology , CFPPs
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