Let's stop rewarding dirty energy industry

October 14, 2002|By Mike Tidwell

IMAGINE a madman of a different stripe, one whose preferred method of mischief is eco-terrorism, not run-of-the-mill weapons of mass destruction.

Imagine he has built a Doomsday Environmental Machine that at the touch of a button can spew millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air or raise ocean levels by several feet or destabilize stockpiles of nuclear reactor waste.

Now, imagine also that Mr. Madman receives billions of dollars in direct U.S. aid to help make his malevolent dreams come true.

Sounds ridiculous, huh? I offer that hypothetical picture as a way of personifying the environmental threats facing America, threats as potentially lethal as any terrorist attack.

The difference, of course, is that the problems of air pollution, global warming, dwindling natural resources and growing mounds of nuclear waste are largely of our own making. As such, they deserve steely-eyed consideration as Congress is about to vote on its latest omnibus energy bill.

The companion House and Senate energy bills are packed with billions of dollars in government subsidies that reward costly, pollution-generating fossil fuel industries. In order to develop a better-balanced, more fiscally responsible energy policy, Congress needs to pull the plug on the corporate welfare largesse that allows Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Gas and Big Nuke to loom so large in our lives.

The Energy Department estimates fossil fuel industries collectively enjoyed at least $750 billion in government subsidies in the 20th century. The nuclear industry has been the beneficiary of more than $1 trillion in subsidies since the 1950s. Still, the handouts continue.

Current government subsidies favor fossil fuel and nuclear energy by a ratio of 44-1 over renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, according to Erich Pica of Friends of the Earth. He directs FOE's Green Scissors Campaign, a watchdog effort to publicize pork barrel energy spending. The energy bill before Congress "keeps on getting worse," says Mr. Pica. He notes that the current $33 billion in subsidies could mushroom to as much as $66 billion.

Consider these giveaways on the legislative table:

A higher ceiling for deductions oil and gas companies can take on marginally productive drilling wells; a tax write-off worth $1 billion over five years.

Proposed tax credits and other incentives to make it more economically viable to build a $20 billion natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the lower 48 states.

A House version of the bill authorizing $900 million over eight years for research and development geared toward oil and gas companies that conduct deep water exploration.

A proposal to pump $2 billion over 10 years into a federally funded "clean coal" research and development program that seeks ways to keep coal-generated electricity affordable.

The adverse effect of overly generous energy subsidies extends beyond the obvious cost to taxpayers.

First, subsidies serve to increase fossil fuel consumption, thereby undermining efforts to reduce the heat-trapping gas emissions that are a primary cause of global warming.

Second, these subsidies amount to de facto price supports, making it difficult for alternative energy industries such as solar power and wind power to gain a foothold in the marketplace. A 1999 Greenpeace study estimated that government subsidies were worth $1.20 to $2.80 on a barrel of domestic oil.

Lastly, subsidies keep America overly dependent on foreign oil. At the time of the first OPEC-induced gas crisis in 1974, the United States imported 1.5 million barrels of oil a day. How much progress toward energy independence have we made in the last 28 years? None. Today, the United States imports more than 2.5 million barrels a day.

We need to start taking solar and wind power seriously. We need to stop showering the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries with obsolete subsidies. The Middle East serves as a daily reminder of the risks associated with being heavily dependent on foreign oil. Reducing that risk requires changing our ways. To put a 21st century spin on a '60s slogan: Make alternative energy, not war.

Mike Tidwell is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a grass-roots group that fights global warming in Maryland.

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