Reality check on fossil fuel subsidies

David Moulton

The problem of global warming is, first and foremost, a problem with how we use energy and the land. If we want less global warming pollution, we need more low- or no-carbon energy sources. The reverse is also true: we should expect our global warming problem to get worse as long as we bias the energy markets in favor of the highest-polluting fuels.

The Environmental Law Institute just released a study showing how federal energy subsidies were allocated during the last six years. It is a disturbing reminder that the federal government still has a heavy hand on the scale in favor of oil, gas and coal — fossil-fuels that are the major contributors to the climate changes that have begun to plague the United States and the world.

The broad comparison suggests a two-to-one bias in favor of polluting fuels — that is, the federal government spends two dollars subsidizing polluting fossil fuels for every one it spends on “climate-protecting” renewables. The bias rises to five-to-one if corn ethanol is not included — more than $70 billion for traditional fossil fuels compared to only $12 billion for traditional renewables (solar, wind, hydro, biomass, geothermal.)

The study also notes that “Most of the largest subsidies to fossil fuels were written into the U.S. Tax Code as permanent provisions. By comparison, many subsidies for renewables are time-limited initiatives implemented through energy bills, with expiration dates that limit their usefulness to the renewables industry.”

Those who argue against transforming our energy economy from fossil fuels to clean alternatives say that the alternatives are not yet cost-competitive. But until we take our hands off the scale, renewables will continue to fight for a foothold in a market that is rigged against them.

The ELI study does not even account for perhaps the biggest “subsidy” of all: free “disposal” by industry of global warming pollution.

For years the coal and oil and gas industries have tried to extend the fantasy that they should be allowed to pollute without consequence. The reality of climate change has already made that era obsolete.

Polluting without consequence is something none of us would expect to get away with in our own lives. Most of us pay our city, county or town to provide a method of trash disposal that keeps our waste from becoming a danger to ourselves or our neighbors. But with global warming pollution, the polluters still wish to operate in a world where they can freely dump the “trash” — carbon dioxide, methane and other harmful gases — into the atmosphere and walk away.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act passed by the House in June takes dead aim at that irresponsible and ultimately dangerous way of doing business, and that is why the polluters are trying to block the bill in the Senate.

Very soon, the Senate will be given an opportunity to vote to end the free dumping of global warming pollution into our air and waters. The Wilderness Society supports this effort. Ask your Senator how he or she intends to vote. The quality of life we hand down to our children, and the survival of our wildlife and wildlands depends on it.

graphic: Courtesy Environmental Law Institute.