Climate Corner: Time to end unhealthy relationship with fossil fuels
Nov 5, 2022
I appreciate fossil fuels. They heated my various homes over the years, got me to my office every day during my work life, took me on several exciting vacations, and gave me a lot of petroleum-based products for my home. But it is time to end my friendship with fossil fuels and, I hope, for others too.
What is leading me to terminate this friendship is climate change. Oceans are rising, getting warmer, and more acidic; glaciers are receding; droughts and wildfires are becoming more serious; the atmosphere is getting warmer; and extreme weather is increasingly bringing us death and devastation. We can see the effects locally–the average temperature in West Virginia has risen to 55 degrees from 1950 to 2021. Fully 97% of scientists agree that human activity is the cause of these compelling observations about our climate.
One of the ways to bring this friendship with fossil fuels to an end is to eliminate or reduce government subsidies of these forms of energy.
Those who typically oppose government intervention in the free market have asserted that our federal government is supporting renewable sources of energy and that without such support the markets would not sustain these costs of investing in solar and wind sources. In her book, “Saving Us,” evangelical climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, describes the massive support that our government has provided and still provides to the fossil fuel industry.
The U.S. is second only to China in supporting these industries. These government supports come in the form of tax breaks and cash grants, such as subsidies for exploration. The cost of these direct subsidies amounts to $20 billion per year (20% for coal and 80% for oil and gas). The Environmental Energy Study Institute (2019) estimates that the total cost of fossil fuel subsidies is $5.3 trillion when negative externalities, such as carbon emissions, health costs, are considered. Direct subsidies include drilling-cost reductions, percentage depletion, credit for clean coal investment. Indirect costs include foreign tax credits, mass limited partnerships (to make energy companies exempt from corporate taxes), and domestic manufacturing deduction. The industry further profits from below-market value for extraction of oil and gas on public lands.
In addition, our government, through its military, invests millions of dollars in the protection of oil and gas resources in places like the Middle East and the Gulf states. We compromise our important values of human rights with the support of oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia.
The fossil-fuel industry tries to present natural gas as a vital bridge to help utilities make the transition from coal-fired power to cleaner sources of energy. What they say is that gas-fired power plants can back up wind- and solar-based power that run intermittently. But battery technology is advancing rapidly to fill that gap as is smart-grid technology to move electricity from where the sun shines and wind blows to where they don’t.
Continuing and expanding natural gas extraction, especially through hydraulic fracturing (i.e., fracking) in this region, means for places like Washington County, Ohio, more waste products. Washington County leads the state in the injection of toxic and radioactive brine waste. Many residents of the county have said about brine waste, “Enough is enough!” We don’t want to subsidize this industry disproportionately and unfairly.
Those concerned about climate change assert that plans for massive expansion of oil and gas resources, in this period of high prices, could essentially lock us into a world of high greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating climate change (methane from natural gas is 80 times as powerful in the near term as a greenhouse gas as CO2). If the industry were to implement these investments in fossil fuels, the climate impact, including methane leaks, would surpass that of all coal-fired power plants under construction or in pre-construction planning, according to a 2021 report by Global Energy Monitor.
With the assistance of these government subsidies, the U.S. energy companies are expanding gas production and transport capacity to reach global markets. The effect of these ventures will be to reduce the cost of natural gas in other markets but increase these costs in the U.S., contributing to high energy prices at home and to inflation.
We need to switch our federal priorities from gratuities to fossil-fuel companies to a carbon fee married to a dividend that goes directly to American taxpayers. By reducing these subsidies and introducing a carbon fee, we can limit our dependence on this fossil fuel and transfer to lower-cost clean energy alternatives like solar and wind power and adopt energy-efficiency practices. Such a strategy will improve the environment, our collective health, and our bank accounts.
George Banziger, Ph..D., was a faculty member at Marietta College and an academic dean at three other colleges. He is a member of the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, Citizens Climate Lobby, and of the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action team.