Time for an Energy Policy that Makes Sense

We all know that a clear, predictable, and fair national policy encouraging investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy is the key to any real, viable solution to avoiding runaway climate change. If this is the case, then why does the overwhelming bulk of our federal tax dollars go to subsidizing the oil, coal, and gas industries and not clean energy? Why are the tax credits that support the fossil fuel industry permanent and unchallengeable? Why are the tax credits that support renewable energy temporary and constantly up for grabs?

According to a 2010 Environmental Law Institute study, the U.S. government provided $72 billion between 2002 and 2008 to the fossil fuel industry. About $54 billion of that total took the form of permanent tax credits for oil, coal, and natural gas producers. During that same period, the renewable energy industry received only $29 billion, most of it also in the form of federal tax credits. The difference is that none of the renewable energy tax credits are permanent.

Of course, as David Roberts writes in Grist, “Comparisons of direct subsidies capture only the tip of a giant iceberg – most of fossil fuels’ big advantages are invisible, beneath the surface, and entirely taken for granted.” Even a quick glance at the indirect subsidies makes clear how uneven the playing field is. External costs such as the public health toll paid for air and water pollution and the national security price of maintaining our addiction to oil amount to trillions of dollars.

Then there are the costs of climate change as superstorms such as Sandy become more frequent and violent. Early estimates of the damage from Sandy range up to $50 billion. And let’s not forget the enormous sunk costs of an infrastructure built on the assumption of cheap fossil energy: highways, suburbs, airports, and the like.

Viewed in this light, as Roberts vividly observes, shifting “from fossil fuels to renewable energy is not like going from Coke to Pepsi; it is to build a new world.” Not even Nate Silver, as good as he is, can tell us how long this new world will take to build and whether we will get far enough along in time to stave off runaway climate change. But one thing we should all be clear about: it’s long past the time to get started, and a national energy policy geared towards this future is an essential first step.

Envisioning a Low-Carbon Future

Listening to the rhetoric of oil, coal, and gas company executives such as the Koch brothers, you would think they were champions of limited government and the free market. In fact, however, the fossil fuel industry is one of the most subsidized businesses in the United States and its burgeoning profits would shrink dramatically without federal support. According to the Environmental Law Institute, the U.S. government provided $72 billion between 2002 and 2008. About $54 billion of that total took the form of permanent tax credits for oil, coal, and natural gas producers. In contrast, during that same period, the renewable energy industry received $29 billion, most of it also in the form of federal tax credits. The difference is that none of these tax credits are permanent.

On top of these enormous subsidies for oil, coal, and gas, there are staggering external costs incurred as a result of our dependence on fossil fuel. These include the expense of defending strategic oil interests in the Middle East and elsewhere, the damage to air quality and our health, and the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate. Then there is the looming crisis of peak oil and our growing competitive disadvantage as other countries such as China rush to embrace clean energy technologies. Taking all of these factors into account, it’s hard not to believe that relying solely on fossil fuel energy is foolhardy.

The Pentagon knows this. At a recent White House summit on clean energy, I spoke with several Army officers from Fort Carson in Colorado and it was clear they were hard at work making the transition to renewables and energy efficiency. No one had to remind them of the tremendous sacrifice in lives and dollars sustained in military operations as a result of our dependence on foreign oil. And no one had to convince them that climate change was a rising national security risk; they had their own hard data about the impact of global warming on political and economic stability around the world.

In light of these developments, it makes perfect sense that President Obama is seeking to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars that the government gives to oil and gas companies. As he put it in a speech at Penn State earlier this month, “It’s time to stop subsidizing yesterday’s energy; it’s time to invest in tomorrow’s.” The redirected dollars would go towards the development of wind, solar, and geothermal power, energy efficiency technology, and building upgrades.

In his Penn State remarks, President Obama called on Americans to take up the challenge of energy innovation. The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) has been doing just that since June 2008. A coalition of community leaders from the business, financial, nonprofit, local government, and education sectors, TCCPI has brought together many of the key organizations and institutions in Tompkins County to explore ways we can build a low carbon future and achieve the County’s target of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

It is efforts like these in countless communities across the U.S. that will make it possible for us to reengage as citizens in a democratic society and take our country in a different direction, one that steps back from the brink of ecological disaster and moves towards a world in which the balance between the natural world and human civilization is restored and a more just and equitable future for our children and grandchildren is made possible. In the end, it will be people, not technology, who make the difference.

Note: A longer version of this post was published in the Tompkins Weekly, February, 29, 2011.