Tag Archives: fossil fuel subsidies

Subsidizing Our Own Destruction

That biblical admonition about “love of money” being the root of all evil continues to be pertinent.

We are now experiencing the initial effects of climate change–effects that scientists have warned about for many years–and sane people know that much worse is to come. Yet rather than directing resources to measures that will ameliorate it, governments all over the globe are continuing to subsidize behaviors that are known to make the problem worse.

The public is providing more than $1m per minute in global farm subsidies, much of which is driving the climate crisis and destruction of wildlife, according to a new report.

Just 1% of the $700bn (£560bn) a year given to farmers is used to benefit the environment, the analysis found. Much of the total instead promotes high-emission cattle production, forest destruction and pollution from the overuse of fertiliser.

The security of humanity is at risk without reform to these subsidies, a big reduction in meat eating in rich nations and other damaging uses of land, the report says. But redirecting the subsidies to storing carbon in soil, producing healthier food, cutting waste and growing trees is a huge opportunity, it says.

The report rejects the idea that subsidies are needed to supply cheap food. It found that the cost of the damage currently caused by agriculture is greater than the value of the food produced. New assessments in the report found producing healthy, sustainable food would actually cut food prices, as the condition of the land improves.

To add insult to injury, in the U.S., those subsidies disproportionately fatten the wallets of big corporate farming operations–not the small family farms urban folks envision when the subject is raised.

Nor is our pell-mell race toward self-destruction limited to farming. When I was researching my most recent book, I was astonished by the enormity of the subsidies of fossil fuels. Despite the fact that climate change is already affecting America’s weather, increasing the urgency of efforts to reduce carbon emissions and increase the development and use of clean energy sources, the United States spends billions of dollars a year subsidizing fossil fuels. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the United States has spent more subsidizing fossil fuels in recent years than it has on defense spending. The IMF found that when indirect subsidies for coal, oil and gas were factored in, subsidies reached $649 billion in 2015, a year when Pentagon spending was $559 billion.

Most inexplicable of all is the fact that that amount includes 2.5 billion per year specifically earmarked for searching out new fossil fuel resources.

Oil Change International calculates that permanent tax breaks to the US fossil fuel industry are seven times larger than those for renewable energy. Several of those fossil fuel subsidies make it profitable to extract resources that it would not otherwise be cost-effective to extract.  Energy experts tell us that, at current prices, the production of nearly half of all U.S. oil would not be economically viable, but for federal and state subsidies.

The Obama administration had proposed to eliminate 60% of federal fossil fuel industry subsidies, but–surprise!– that proposal went nowhere.

During the 2015-2016 election cycle oil, gas, and coal companies spent $354 million in campaign contributions and lobbying. The industry received $29.4 billion in federal subsidies in total over those same years – reaping a 8,200% return on investment.

It is difficult to argue with the conclusion of the OCI report: “Removing these highly inefficient [fossil fuel] subsidies – which waste billions of dollars propping up an industry incompatible with safe climate limits – should be the first priority of fiscally responsible climate, energy, and tax reform policies.”

Our first priority should be the election of lawmakers who will not be seduced by “love of money” and who will work to save the planet for our children and grandchildren.

 

 

Energy and the Marketplace

Congressional critics made sure that Americans heard about the “scandal” of Solyndra, the green energy start-up that failed and defaulted on its government loan. But we haven’t heard much about the federal government’s renewable energy loan program since then–probably because there hasn’t been a subsequent opportunity to twist results in order to make political hay.

Since 2005, the Department of Energy has loaned $34.2 billion to a variety of businesses to spur development of clean-energy technology. A recent NPR report notes that– while there have indeed been defaults (amounting to $780 million, or 2.28 percent of the total)– DOE has also collected $810 million in interest payments, for a profit of $30 million.

The default rate on these loans is well below the rate of commercial loan defaults typically experienced by traditional banks, according to data maintained by the Federal Reserve. NPR went back to those who criticized the loan program three years ago, but none of the critics would comment for the record.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz pointed out that the loan program had funded the first of five huge solar projects in the West. Before that, developers couldn’t get money from private lenders, but now they can.

“We have to be careful that we don’t walk away from risk, because otherwise we’re not really going to advance the marketplace,” Moniz told NPR.

This is precisely the way government loans are supposed to work: to “prime the pump.” When new technologies are deemed too risky for the private marketplace, when the rehabilitation of depressed neighborhoods makes it impossible to get traditional mortgages–in short, when the private sector is not willing to encourage the sort of entrepreneurial activity that benefits us all–governments can step in and jump-start the process.

Of course, once the pump has been primed–once a market has been established and risk moderated–government needs to withdraw and allow the private marketplace to operate. The problem in our (increasingly oligarchical) system is that industries are happy to continue (excuse my vulgarity) sucking at the public tit. So we end up continuing to subsidize companies that have enjoyed years of obscene profits, are sitting on huge cash reserves and have absolutely no problem obtaining necessary financing.

Fossil fuel companies, for example.

In the United States, credible estimates of annual fossil fuel subsidies range from $10 billion to $52 billion annually. These numbers do not include the significant costs attributable to externalities related to the climate, or to the other environmental and health impacts of the fossil fuel industry. We taxpayers also pay those costs, which are another form of subsidy.

Here’s my question to all the critics who screamed bloody murder about Solyndra and the DOE program generally: where’s your indignation about the immense and counterproductive costs of continued fossil fuel subsidies?