The current state of U.S. energy subsidies: a topic that somehow manages to – simultaneously – bore me to death and make me pissy. (And yes, I uttered that particular word out loud in front of my Ecocentric colleagues last week. I'm not proud.)
Where to begin? First, the Senate couldn’t bring itself to strip a few tax subsidies for oil companies a couple Thursdays ago. That measure wouldn’t have touched coal or natural gas companies, just the five largest, most profitable oil companies in the world. Yet even with overwhelming public support to strip tax credits from the oil and gas industry – 74 percent are in support, according to a recent poll – the Senate didn’t deem it proper to cut off the supply of public dollars for five companies with about $1.8 trillion combined in revenue at their disposal.
The cynic in me says money may have influenced the Senate’s decision, and that cynic has a point: the members who voted against the tax credit cut have, collectively, taken in about $24 million in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry, while those who voted for it received about $5 million.
But here’s what got me to utter the p-word: The very same day as the Senate vote, House Speaker John Boehner released a statement attacking a comparatively tiny renewable energy grant program by invoking the Solyndra bogeyman. Of course, this grant program has nothing to do with Solyndra, in fact it expired at the end of 2011 and, as one energy consultant explained, didn’t create a single new dollar of federal spending.
Heaven forbid that someone other than big oil gets a little federal investment.
Actually, it has nothing to do with the heavens, and everything to do with the estimated $27 trillion of carbon resources – coal, gas and oil – still left under our feet. That’s enough money to inspire ExxonMobil to develop an algorithmic formula for political spending and lobbying to ensure that the subsidies and the permits keep flowing. The renewables lobbying industry isn’t that sophisticated – at least not yet.
But maybe the renewables industry shouldn’t have to follow the fossil fuel industry’s lead by attempting to buy political favors. What about a sensible approach to energy subsidies? Here’s a paraphrased version of Bill McKibben’s recently suggested rules to federally fund by:
1. Don’t subsidize those who already have plenty of cash on hand.
2. Don’t subsidize people forever.
3. Sometimes you'll subsidize something for a sensible reason and it won’t work out.
4. Don’t subsidize something you want less of.
5. Don’t give subsidies to people who have given you cash.
Such a very sensible set of rules that would let the renewable energy industry get a fairer shake. With so much carbon-generated money being thrown around this Congress, however, it’s a tough sell.
Federal subsidies may not be the most scintillating of issues, but c'mon, admit it: You're getting pissy now, too!