Energy’s Dirty Little Secret

Opponents of renewable energy are quick to point out with disdain that renewable energy sources wouldn’t be viable without subsidies.

As one who tends to hate subsidies because of their tendency to create perverse market distortions, as well as their spurious on-again/off-again nature (e.g., wind PTC circa 1999-2004), I am sympathetic to arguments that employ a dislike of subsidies.

But, what bothers me even more than subsidies is hypocracy and disingenuousness. And, those who rant against renewable subsidies are guilty as charged.

The dirty little secret in the energy industry is how vastly subsidized conventional forms of energy are. I recall estimates from the late 1990’s suggesting that the U.S. subsidizes fossil fuel to the tune of about $30 billion per year, through various mechanisms but mainly relating to military activities/presence in the Middle East whose costs do not get reflected in energy prices. In case you missed it, these estimates were from the late 1990’s; if they were accurate, the magnitude of fossil fuel energy subsidies must surely be higher now.

Another way of considering the subsidy issue is to examine Federal R&D spending on energy, as CRS has done. By their reckoning, between 1948 and 1998, the U.S. government spent $74 billion on nuclear programs, $31 billion on fossil programs, and $15 billion on renewables. In other words, R&D funding on more mature energy forms outweighed R&D spending on immature renewables technologies by a factor of 7 to 1. By another measure indicating the tilt against renewable energy — federal tax breaks between 1998-2003 — fossil energy received $10.2 billion, nuclear $1.5 billion, and renewables $0.4 billion.

This last estimate was provided by Alexandra Teitz (Minority Counsel, Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives) last week in her presentation to the monthly ABA Renewable Energy teleconference, provocatively titled:

“Renewable Energy in the Energy Policy Act: Business As Usual = Failure”.

One can argue about how to properly quantify the estimates, but the directional implication is without doubt: conventional energy forms receive gluttonous quantities of subsidies. Could someone explain to me why fossil energy interests, who have had a century to build a solid market position, should receive any government subsidies at all? Anyone at the Cato Institute listening?

I would be delighted if the subsidies on renewable energy were removed, if the subsidies on conventional energy were also removed. Let’s play on a fair playing field. I argue that would be a far better situation for those of us who care about energy security and the environment.

Until then, as much as I dislike subsidies of all forms, and think that undue reliance on them is a danger for renewable energy industries, I would seriously prefer those who rail loudly against renewable energy subsidies to simply shut up and get wise to the facts. Or better yet, to turn their venom to all energy subsidies, not just those accruing to renewables.

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