You often hear conservatives say that if alternative energy sources were feasible, they’d be cheaper. And many conservatives favor an approach of subsidizing every energy source through tax breaks, as opposed to making a conscious choice to limit or at least boost the price of the fossil fuels that contribute so much to climate change while perpetuating our dependence on unstable global oil markets.
That’s why it’s important to understand that producers of fossil fuels current benefit from a large variety of federal subsidies that are much more extensive than anything offered on behalf of clean and/or renewable energy sources. Via Grist’s David Roberts, there’s a new study by the Environmental Law Institute and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars that puts a price tag on U.S. subsidies for various energy sources during the years 2002-2008.
It’s a pretty bad picture. Over this period, fossil fuels received $79 billion in federal subsidies, while renewable fuels received $29 billion. And among the renewables, over half the subsidies actually went to just one politically connected source, corn ethanol, which is controversial because of its impact on agriculture, and because its production typically requires extensive use of fossil fuels.
As Roberts notes, the figures for fossil fuels subsidies are conservative:
It did not include any number of things that could be considered indirect or implicit subsidies. It didn’t include military spending to defend oil in the Middle East, spending on the electricity grid, or transportation spending. Those things don’t go exclusively to fossil fuels, but if there was a way of including the share that goes to fossil fuels, the fossil subsidy number would go way, way up. Infrastructure spending has more or less exclusively supported fossil fuels for decades now.
Just yesterday, President Obama told the United Nations that subsidies for fossil fuels around the world need to come to an end. That’s certainly a goal that needs to be embraced by the United States.