Fossil fuels folly

October 27, 2003|By Mike Tidwell

TWO WHITE House forecasts make Capitol Hill leaders look particularly unwise as they prepare to pass a national energy bill sometime this month.

First, there's the Bush administration's projection of a nearly $500 billion budget deficit for next year. Second - and, yes, this is official - the administration is forecasting significant global warming in the coming decades with likely painful economic and environmental consequences.

Given these realities, why are U.S. House and Senate negotiators loading the Energy Security Act of 2003 with $19 billion in corporate giveaways to the oil, coal and natural gas industries? The effect of such welfare is to provide incentives for fossil fuel consumption over conservation, thus asking taxpayers to spend money they don't have for the dirtier air and rising atmospheric temperatures nobody wants.

Even if you don't care about the potential ravages of global warming, you might object to the obscene waste of your tax money. The 5-inch-thick House version of the energy bill offers energy sector giveaways ranging from nano-technology research to a demonstration project to burn post-consumer carpeting in cement kilns.

The most expensive largesse goes straight to some of America's biggest and most prosperous polluters.

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan group dedicated to cutting wasteful government spending, the House bill would provide $10.9 billion in new subsidies and tax breaks to the oil and gas industries. This includes government aid to begin training workers to build an extensive natural gas pipeline delivering Alaskan gas to the lower 48 states. A Senate proposal would go further, mandating a guaranteed price for all gas sold from the pipeline at a cost of up to $40 billion to taxpayers.

The House bill also includes $2.2 billion in government spending and tax breaks to help electric utilities and $1.9 billion to build new "clean coal" facilities. This despite the fact that the Clean Coal Technology Program has been documented as a failure by the government's own General Accounting Office for its inability "to meet cost, schedule or performance goals." And coal, once burned, positively warms the planet no matter how "clean" someone cares to call it.

Such giveaways might be easier to stomach if they actually improved our economy and helped consumers. But even analysts within the oil and gas industry agree that the nearly 1,000-page compromise bill soon to emerge will do very little to reduce energy prices or increase domestic energy production.

"This legislation actually harms the oil and gas industry," says Jerry Taylor of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington. "When the government tries to help build a pipeline or involve itself in some other way, overall economic efficiency is lost, and that hurts consumers."

Then there's the other big problem.

By providing unwarranted incentives for more fossil fuel use, the House bill also contributes to what most climate scientists worldwide now view as the greatest environmental crisis of the 21st century: global climate change.

Fossil fuels, when burned, emit carbon dioxide, a gas that migrates to the atmosphere, creating a smothering, heat-trapping blanket around the Earth. Even the Bush administration, in a major report delivered to the United Nations last year, explicitly acknowledged that global warming is real and will worsen in the near future, bringing potentially significant impacts to our economy and environment.

Maryland is very vulnerable to this warming trend. Farmed acreage of major crops could drop between 24 and 43 percent in the state due to shifting precipitation patterns, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And with more than 3,100 miles of Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean shoreline, Maryland is profoundly threatened by a projected sea level rise of up to 3 feet. Such a rise would destroy vast stretches of coastal property, turn aquifers to salt water and drown ecologically critical wetland grasses, scientists say.

The last thing we need is for our tax dollars to accelerate and intensify these impacts. But by giving public money to fossil fuel companies, we make it harder for clean energy sources such as solar and wind to compete in the marketplace, thus slowing any real solution to the climate crisis.

Thankfully, it's not too late to stop the energy bill. As early as today, it will emerge in final form from a Republican-dominated conference committee. But given the negative impacts on the federal budget, consumers and the environment, Senate Democrats should resort to a filibuster - a weapon reserved for only the most dangerous legislation. Unless every last dollar now earmarked for the oil, coal and gas industries is stripped from this bill, it should die.

No bill is better than one that makes everything much, much worse.

Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, based in Takoma Park.

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