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By Robert Rapier on Sep 21, 2009 with no responses

About That $72 Billion Subsidy

I am going to be pretty busy for the next few days, and probably won’t be able to put anything new up until at least mid-week. Until then, over the past few days there have been a lot of headlines about a recently released study from the Environmental Law Institute. The study concluded that over the past seven years, fossil fuels have benefited from some $72 billion in subsidies. Their headline was innocent enough:

U.S. Tax Breaks Subsidize Foreign Oil Production

(Washington, DC) — The largest U.S subsidies to fossil fuels are attributed to tax breaks that aid foreign oil production, according to research to be released on Friday by the Environmental Law Institute in partnership with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The study, which reviewed fossil fuel and energy subsidies for Fiscal Years 2002-2008, reveals that the lion’s share of energy subsidies supported energy sources that emit high levels of greenhouse gases.

The research demonstrates that the federal government provided substantially larger subsidies to fossil fuels than to renewables. Fossil fuels benefited from approximately $72 billion over the seven-year period, while subsidies for renewable fuels totaled only $29 billion. More than half the subsidies for renewables—$16.8 billion—are attributable to corn-based ethanol, the climate effects of which are hotly disputed. Of the fossil fuel subsidies, $70.2 billion went to traditional sources—such as coal and oil—and $2.3 billion went to carbon capture and storage, which is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Thus, energy subsidies highly favored energy sources that emit high levels of greenhouse gases over sources that would decrease our climate footprint.

Let me be perfectly clear here. I am very opposed to policies that subsidize our usage of fossil fuels. But I am also opposed to painting with very broad brushes. In the case of the oil subsidies, three things stand out. First, the taxes the oil companies paid over that time period are about an order of magnitude higher than those so-called subsidies. Second, many of these so-called subsidies would merely be called tax deductions in any other industry. Finally, many of the so-called subsidies didn’t even go to Big Oil.

One of my diligent readers took the time to actually read the study, and broke it down:

I was a little puzzled by this ELI study. First of all, the itemized subsidies only added up to $68 bn, not $72. Maybe they were just listing the largest items – I didn’t read the fine print. I thought it would be useful to see just what was being subsidized rather than blurting out “BIG OIL Subsidy!!” I found it useful to consider 10 categories of fossil fuel subsidies.

1) 22%, or $15 billion of the $68 billion listed, was allocated to the Foreign Tax Credit you referenced. Not $72 billion.

2) 23% went to subsidize production in high cost environments, areas that may have otherwise been commercially marginal (although that of course depends on price). This seems like a legitimate use of subsidy to me, if without it most of these projects would have not been undertaken. [RR: As I have argued before, it makes sense to subsidize things that are deemed important, but otherwise uneconomic].

3) 11% went to various accounting conventions, particularly treatment of intangible costs.

4) 10% went to assumed loss stemming from lower than expected offshore lease government take. This seems very arbitrary to me. As I understand it, the ELI is assuming some globally fair government take, and calculates that the feds could get more. Maybe. But there’s no free lunch. A higher take might mean lower bids or less development.

5) 9% went to a low income housing energy assistance program. This is money paid to states to insure low income families get access to fuels. Hardly a Big Oil subsidy.

6) Another 9% went to government storage programs, the SPR and two other minor programs. This is a government initiative, not a handout to the oil industry.

7) 8% went to an accounting rule benefiting independent producers, not Big Oil.

8) 5% went to the coal industry.

9) 1% went to incentives for clean fuels.

10) 1% went to a variety of small miscellaneous programs.

So, of these

- Numbers 1 and 3 may have room for revenue take ($22 bn);

- Number 4 possibly but would have the side effect of lower US production (how could it not?) $7 bn;

- Number 2 would clearly have a negative impact on US production ($16 bn);

- Number 7 would hurt smaller companies but may be minor source of revenue ($5 bn)

- The rest are not really benefiting the oil industry very much.

I view this as $22 bn in possibly vulnerable oil industry subsidies, another $23 bn in at least partly defensible subsidies, and $27 billion (getting back to $72 bn) in subsidies that don’t benefit the large mutlinationals much at all.

Again, let me make it clear that I oppose true fossil fuel subsidies. In fact, I support “antisubsidies” – higher taxes – for fossil fuels in order to incentivize conservation and promote renewables (and again, I think it can be done in a revenue-neutral manner). But I do think the discussion should be intellectually honest, and we shouldn’t lump money destined for research into carbon sequestration into all-encompassing “oil subsidies.”