The NSW "polluter pays" scheme leaves taxpayers footing the bill for dirty power: report.

Emissions: Bayswater power station in the background of an Upper Hunter open cut coal mine. Doctors for the Environment say the health costs of power station emissions should be prioritised.
Emissions: Bayswater power station in the background of an Upper Hunter open cut coal mine. Doctors for the Environment say the health costs of power station emissions should be prioritised.

THE state’s ageing coal-fired power stations should pay hundreds of millions of dollars per year in pollution fees, says a new report with the first Australian figures on the true health costs of a toxic power station emission.

Sulphur dioxide pollution should cost power station operators $1.94 for every megawatt per hour produced based on human health impacts, said Newcastle University academic Dr Ben Ewald in a paper released this week arguing the cost of coal-fired power generation health impacts is borne by the community and not the polluter.

NSW power stations, including AGL’s Bayswater and Liddell near Muswellbrook, pay only 4.3 cents per megawatt hour for sulphur dioxide pollution under a NSW polluter-pays scheme introduced in 1999, and under review for the past three years.

Sulphur dioxide is just one of a number of toxic emissions from coal-fired power stations, making breathing difficult and harming the respiratory system, and causing particular problems for the elderly, children and people with asthma. Sulphur dioxide compounds can penetrate deeply into sensitive parts of the lungs and cause additional health problems. A previous Australian study has shown sulphur dioxide from Hunter power stations in fine particle emissions above Sydney. 

Dr Ewald used Australian Government value of life data and other “high quality local research” including hospital cardiovascular admission costs to find $1.94 per megawatt hour is only the sulphur dioxide contribution to health damage from power station emissions, with the cost borne by taxpayers and the community.

There is extensive public debate about the transition of the electricity sector away from coal-fired generation, but the health effects are not being considered in this debate.

Newcastle University academic Dr Ben Ewald

When compared with the 4.3 cents per megawatt hour currently paid by coal-fired power station operators, the new research provided a “strong basis for formulating pollution control policy”, Dr Ewald said.

Power stations produce almost all sulphur dioxide air pollution in NSW. 

“There is extensive public debate about the transition of the electricity sector away from coal-fired generation, but the health effects are not being considered in this debate,” Dr Ewald said.

In a submission in 2016 to the Environment Protection Authority’s review of the current “polluter pays” scheme in NSW, Dr Ewald and Doctors for the Environment said the existing pollution unit fees were “way too small and this is the main reason the system is failing to meet its objectives”.

In his paper published this week in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, Dr Ewald said applying unit fees based on real data, and closer to the true health costs of toxic coal-fired power station emissions would “make the dirtiest power stations less profitable and potentially hasten their closure”.

“Applying a fee per tonne emitted creates an incentive that matches what we know about air pollution science – that for many pollutants there is no safe level and there will be benefits from reduced emissions at any level,” Dr Ewald said.

“It would provide a revenue stream that could be used for any purpose, but one option would be to offset the effect on power prices, in which case the pollution fee is in effect a transfer from high pollution electricity generators to low pollution electricity generators.”

Incorporating the health costs into the cost of operation of coal-fired power stations would ensure that health considerations are part of the decisions about their closure order, Dr Ewald said.

“In the meantime they will provide a financial incentive for cleaner operation.”

Doctors for the Environment will hold its Health in a Changing Climate conference in Newcastle from April 13-15.

This story Doctors put a price on toxic power station emissions first appeared on Newcastle Herald.