Energy Subsidies: The Case for a Level Playing Field

Energy Subsidies: The Case for a Level Playing Field | 02/02/15
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

By now, we’re all aware of the threat to the well-being of life on this planet posed by our massive use of fossil fuels and the various ways we might attempt to reduce the rate of CO2 increase in our atmosphere.

Divestment in fossil fuels is under discussion — as one way to lower our massive carbon emissions

The case for divestment generally flows along these lines;
By making investment in fossil fuels seem unethical, investors will gradually move away from fossil fuels into other investments, leaving behind a smaller, but hardcore cohort of fossil fuel investors.

Resulting (in theory) in a gradual decline in the total global investment in fossil fuels, thereby lowering consumption and CO2 additions to the atmosphere. So the thinking goes.

It worked well in the case of tobacco, a few decades back. Over time, fewer people wanted their names or fund associated with the tobacco industry — so that the tobacco industry is now a shadow of its former self.

Interestingly, Solaris (a hybridized tobacco plant) is being grown and processed into biofuel to power South African Airways (SAA) jets. They expect all flights to be fully powered by tobacco biofuel within a few years, cutting their CO2 emissions in half. Read more about that here.

Another way to curtail carbon emissions is to remove the massive fossil fuel subsidies

In 2014, the total global fossil fuel subsidy amounted to $548 billion dollars according to the IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development) although it was projected to hit $600 billion before the oil price crash began in September. The global fossil fuel subsidy amount totalled $550 billion dollars in 2013. For 2012, it totalled $525 billion dollars. (These aren’t secret numbers, they’re easily viewed at the IEA and major news sites such as Reuters and Bloomberg)

Yes, removing those subsidies would do much to lower our carbon emissions as many oil and gas wells, pipelines, refineries and port facilities would suddenly become hugely uneconomic.

We don’t recognize them for the white elephants they are, because they are obscured by mountains of cash.

And there are powerful lobby groups dedicated to keeping those massive subsidies in place. Ergo, those subsidies likely aren’t going away, anytime soon.

Reducing our CO2 footprint via a carbon tax scheme

But for all of the talk… not much has happened.

The fossil fuel industry will spin this for decades, trying to get the world to come to contretemps on the *exact dollar amount* of fossil fuel damage to the environment.

Long before any agreement is reached we will be as lobsters in a pot due to global warming.

And know that there are powerful lobby groups dedicated to keeping a carbon tax from ever seeing the light of day.

The Third Option: Levelling the Subsidy Playing Field

  • Continue fossil fuel subsidies at the same level and not institute a carbon tax.
  • Quickly ramp-up renewable energy subsidies to match existing fossil fuel subsidies.

Both divestment in fossil fuels and reducing fossil fuel subsidies attempt to lower our total CO2 emissions by (1) reducing fossil fuel industry revenues while (2) a carbon tax attempts to lower our total CO2 use/emissions by increasing spending for the fossil fuel industry

I prefer (3) a revenue-neutral and spending-neutral solution (from the oil company’s perspective) to lower our CO2 use/emissions.

So far, there are no (known) powerful fossil fuel lobby groups dedicated to preventing renewable energy from receiving the same annual subsidy levels as the fossil fuel industry.

Imagine how hypocritical the fossil fuel industry would look if it attempted to block renewable energy subsidies set to the same level as fossil fuel subsidies.

Renewable energy received 1/4 of the total global subsidy amount enjoyed by fossil fuel (2014)

Global Energy Subsidies (2014, in billions USD). Image courtesy of IISD.
Global Energy Subsidies 2014. (billions USD). Image courtesy of IISD.

Were governments to decide that renewable energy could receive the same global, annual subsidy as the fossil fuel industry, a number of things would begin to happen;

  • Say goodbye to high unemployment.
  • Say goodbye to the dirtiest fossil projects.
  • Immediate lowering of CO2 emissions.
  • Less imported foreign oil.
  • Cleaner air in cities.
  • Sharp decline in healthcare costs.
  • Democratization of energy through all socio-economic groups.

Summary

Even discounting the global externality cost of fossil fuel (which some commentators have placed at up to $2 trillion per year) the global, annual $548 billion fossil fuel subsidy promotes an unfair marketplace advantage.

But instead of punishing the fossil fuel industry for supplying us with reliable energy for decades (by taking away ‘their’ subsidies) or by placing on them the burden of a huge carbon tax (one that reflects the true cost of the fossil fuel externality) I suggest that we simply match the renewable energy subsidy to the fossil subsidy… and let both compete on a level playing field in the international marketplace.

Assuming a level playing field; May the best competitor win!

By matching renewable energy subsidies to fossil fuel subsidies, ‘Energy Darwinism’ will reward the better energy solution

My opinion is that renewable energy will win hands down and that we will exceed our clean air goals over time — and stop global warming in its tracks.

Not only that, but we will create hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs and accrue other benefits during the transition to renewable energy. We will also lower healthcare spending, agricultural damage, and lower damage to steel and concrete infrastructure from acid rain.

In the best-case future: ‘Oil & Gas companies’ will simply become known as ‘Energy companies’

Investors will simply migrate from fossil fuel energy stock, to renewable energy stock, within the same energy company or group of energy companies.

At the advent of scheduled airline transportation nearly a century ago, the smart railway companies bought existing airlines (or created their own airlines) and kept their traditional investors and gained new ones.

Likewise, smart oil and gas companies, should now buy existing renewable energy companies (or create their own renewable energy companies) and keep their traditional investors and gain new ones.

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The Big Energy Story of 2012

by John Brian Shannon

The world energy industry is suddenly transforming into something very different from the industry we have grown accustomed to over the past decades. In those previous decades, it was pump and burn more oil, mine and burn more coal and build more coal-fired burners to produce electricity. More, more and more smokethat is!

Anti-nuclear protesters were a constant feature in the press anywhere a reactor was considered, built or commissioned into use. Urban residents held irregular anti-smog protests outside of City Hall in large cities like LA and Tokyo.

Small-scale and large wars, were fought over control of the world’s oil and gas fields — sometimes affecting the very economic health of those nations.

Welcome to 2013. The world is still reeling from President Barack Obama’s decision to wean America completely off of foreign oil, he also ordered oil and gas production to be dramatically ramped up in the U.S.A. – and he decided to make his country a net oil exporter of oil and gas. Not just any-old net exporter mind you, but the world’s number one exporter of both oil and gas by 2017! That’s in four years.

Heady stuff for a normally ambivalent world.

Remember back in February of 2006, when then-President George W. Bush famously stated in his State of the Union speech that “America is addicted to oil.” That of course, is true. The U.S.A. and the other industrialized nations wouldn’t survive without oil as the entire Western economy is based on petroleum and the products made from it. From transportation and energy fuels, to plastics, medicines, agricultural fertilizers, residential and commercial buildings – virtually everything we live in, drive, wear, buy or use, is a product or by-product of petroleum.

Both Presidents — Obama and Bush, foresaw the importance of lowering overall energy use to improve the health and quality of life for American citizens, to lower international tensions by sourcing oil and gas domestically and to invest in clean technology to improve conservation and efficiency.

It turns out that conservation, green energy and domestic energy extraction is not a Democrat or Republican thing — it’s a leadership thing. And all over the world, it is catching on. Welcome to 2013, indeed!

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JOHN BRIAN SHANNON

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