By Jim Motavalli
12:55 PM EDT, August 28, 2012
One of the story lines this mean election season is that the Obama Administration dumps billions on alternative fuel and electric vehicle/battery companies, which then go bankrupt. It's why the name Solyndra is probably not lost on you. ("Legitimate rape" has probably entered your lexicon, too, but that's for other reasons.)
I was startled to hear that as governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney actually visited and lauded a state-based solar plant that then went bankrupt, taking more than $6 million in state funds with it. Back then, the moderate version of Romney promoted a green energy fund as a "major economic springboard." In fact, Lowell's Konarka Technologies closed down its solar operations June 1, the very day after Romney had made a big noise standing in front of Solyndra's shuttered gates in California.
Now Worldwatch Institute is doing us all a favor by pointing out that the world subsidized renewable energy by $66 billion in 2010. Sure, that's a lot of money. But in the same year it provided $775 billion to ease the path of fossil fuels. And it's likely to be $1 trillion in 2012.
We pay for all that subsidized gasoline and diesel. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that fossil fuel subsidies "cost the U.S. $120 billion in pollution and related health costs every year."
Political seasons don't encourage much use of subtlety. Basic points — Obama wastes taxpayer dollars on green energy, ballooning the deficit — are hammered through. Now I'm not saying that investing $500 million in Solyndra was a good idea, but the solar industry tanked for complicated reasons, including Chinese industries churning out cheap panels, which were mainly exported here and to Europe. It doesn't fit in a soundbite.
Fossil fuel subsidies are nearly invisible, what Alex Ochs of Worldwatch calls "hidden costs, or externalities." They affect us big-time, though. "Local pollutants from the burning of fossil fuels kill thousands in the U.S. alone each year," Ochs said. "And society makes them cheaper to continue down their destructive path."
Now this is interesting. No less an authority than the International Energy Agency (IEA), says that if we phased out fossil fuel subsidies by 2020, global oil consumption would go down nearly four percent that year alone. So we can reduce foreign oil dependency, something we say we all want, by not spending money. The same reduction would cut emissions of carbon dioxide, the major climate gas, by 4.7 percent in 2020 (and 5.8 percent in 2035).
I don't hear Obama making a campaign plank out of eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, but if he framed it property he might pick up some votes. Americans today don't like to hear that we're doing something to combat global warming, but they're very receptive to reducing foreign oil dependency.
In Indonesia, the government spent 2.2 percent of its entire gross domestic product on fuel subsidies. Such financial aid goes a long way to explaining why Jakarta is clogged with 11 million vehicles and has horrible air pollution. But plans to take away those subsidies provoked riots. Americans might respond differently: by switching to more fuel-efficient cars, hybrids and electrics.
Copyright © 2014, WTXX-TV