Fossil fuel subsidies total trillions of dollars per year

Most of the cost of fossil fuels is hidden because environmental harms such as pollution and global warming are kept outside ordinary economic calculation. Energy companies externalize these costs (among others) — that is, they don’t pay them. The public does.

And we do, to a remarkable extent. When we think of corporate subsidies, we naturally think of taxes not paid, real estate giveaways and other ways of taking money from the public and shoveling it into corporate coffers. Then there are the environmental costs, something prominent if we are talking about fossil fuels. These, too, should be thought of as subsidies since these constitute costs paid by the public. A first attempt at seriously quantifying the magnitude of the totality of subsidies given to fossil fuels leads to a conclusion that the total for 2014 was US$5.6 trillion, a total expected to be matched in 2015.

Yes, you read that correctly: 5.6 trillion dollars. As in 5.6 million million. Or, to put it another way, more than seven percent of gross world product.

A lot of money.

These calculations are, interestingly, the product of an International Monetary Fund working paper, “How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies?” The paper, prepared by economists David Coady, Ian Parry, Louis Sears and Baoping Shang, sought to provide a fuller accounting of the costs of the environmental damages caused by fossil fuels, and found that those costs greatly exceed direct corporate subsidies and below-cost consumer pricing. The authors foresee huge benefits should all fossil-fuel subsidies be eliminated. They write:

“Eliminating post-tax subsidies in 2015 could raise government revenue by $2.9 trillion (3.6 percent of global GDP), cut global CO₂ emissions by more than 20 percent, and cut pre-mature air pollution deaths by more than half. After allowing for the higher energy costs faced by consumers, this action would raise global economic welfare by $1.8 trillion (2.2 percent of global GDP).” [page 7]

Grangemouth oil refinery at sunset (photo by Steve Garvie, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland)

Grangemouth oil refinery at sunset (photo by Steve Garvie, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland)

As dramatic as the preceding paragraph is, the International Monetary Fund is not suddenly questioning capitalism. The paper carries the caveat that it is “research in progress” and does not represent the views of the IMF. Nor does the paper devote so much as a single word questioning the economic system that has produced such astounding distortions, not to mention the hideous social effects of massive inequality and power imbalances. Nonetheless, it does present an implicit challenge to business as usual and helps conceptualize the massive costs of profligate energy usage. The paper lays out in plain language the environmental, fiscal, economic and social consequences of energy subsidies, stating that energy subsidies [page 5]:

  • Damage the environment, causing more premature deaths through local air pollution, exacerbating congestion and other adverse side effects of vehicle use, and increasing atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations.
  • Impose large fiscal costs, which need to be financed by some combination of higher public debt, higher tax burdens and crowding out potentially productive public spending (for example, on health, education and infrastructure).
  • Discourage needed investments in energy efficiency, renewables and energy infrastructure, and increase the vulnerability of countries to volatile international energy prices.
  • Are a highly inefficient way to provide support to low-income households since most of the benefits from energy subsidies are typically captured by rich households.

Paying for air pollution and global warming

The biggest subsidized cost is air pollution, which the paper’s authors estimate accounts for 46 percent of fossil fuel subsidies. Global warming is the next biggest subsidy, at 22 percent, with corporate and consumer subsidies, foregone taxes and other items accounting for smaller amounts. From this calculation, the authors argue that local benefits from ending subsidies are high enough that doing so should be done in the absence of action in other countries. They write:

“An important point, therefore, is that most (over three-fourths) of the underpricing of energy is due to domestic distortions — pre-tax subsidies and domestic externalities — rather than to global distortions (climate change). The crucial implication of this is that energy pricing reform is largely in countries’ own domestic interest and therefore is beneficial even in the absence of globally coordinated action.” [page 21]

When the costs are broken down by forms of energy, it is no surprise that coal is the most subsidized form. Coal subsidies alone total almost four percent of global GDP, according to the paper, with “no country … impos[ing] meaningful taxes on coal use from an environmental perspective.” Petroleum is also heavily subsidized.

If we could at a stroke eliminate all forms of fossil fuel subsidies, the gains would be significant. The authors believe that global revenue gains would be $2.9 trillion for 2015, a total less than the current cost of subsidies because it accounts for a reduction in energy usage from higher prices and an assumption that some tax money would be used for emission-control technologies. The authors also calculate a $1.8 trillion net gain in social welfare, a gain that could be increased were this gain used to invest in education, health and other public benefits.

So if so much good can come from rationalizing the fossil fuel industry, why does this sound like an impossible dream? Unfortunately, in real world of capitalism, there is very little to prevent corporations from externalizing their costs.

With increased corporate globalization, capital can pick up and move at will, inducing political office holders to hand out subsidies, waive taxes and refuse to enforce safety and environmental laws. They do this because the alternative is for corporations to move elsewhere in a never-ending search for the lowest wages and weakest regulations with an accompanying disappearance of jobs. And this globalization, fueled by “free trade” agreements that arise from relentless competition, aggravates global warming as components are shipped around the world for assembly into finished products that are shipped back, greatly adding to the environmental damage imposed by transportation.

Environment doesn’t count in orthodox economics

Not only is the environment an externality that corporations do not have to account for, thereby dumping the costs on to the public, but orthodox economics doesn’t account for the environment, other than as a source of resources to exploit. The same capitalist market that is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest and most powerful industrialists and financiers is supposed to “solve” environmental problems. A Monthly Review article by sociologists Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism in Wonderland,” puts this contradiction in stark perspective:

“Mainstream economists are trained in the promotion of private profits as the singular ‘bottom line’ of society, even at the expense of larger issues of human welfare and the environment. The market rules over all, even nature. For Milton Friedman the environment was not a problem since the answer was simple and straightforward. As he put it: ‘ecological values can find their natural space in the market, like any other consumer demand.’ ” [May 2009, page 4]

From that perspective, it follows that present-day environmental damage is of minimal concern to capital and future damage of no concern. The industrialists and financiers who reap billions today won’t necessarily be around when the environmental price becomes too high to avoid. The “Capitalism in Wonderland” authors write:

“[T]he ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics [is] a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future. …

[H]uman life in effect is worth only what each person contributes to the economy as measured in monetary terms. So, if global warming increases mortality in Bangladesh, which it appears likely that it will, this is only reflected in economic models to the extent that the deaths of Bengalis hurt the economy. Since Bangladesh is very poor, [orthodox] economic models … would not estimate it to be worthwhile to prevent deaths there since these losses would show up as minuscule in the measurements. … [E]thical concerns about the intrinsic value of human life and of the lives of other creatures are completely invisible in standard economic models. Increasing human mortality and accelerating the rate of extinctions are to most economists only problems if they undermine the ‘bottom line.’ In other respects they are invisible: as is the natural world as a whole.” [pages 9-10]

Tinkering versus analyzing the structure

The International Monetary Fund paper does offer a brief discussion of social disruptions should fossil-fuel subsidies be removed, suggesting a need for “transitory” programs such as worker retraining and protection of vulnerable groups. [page 31] But their proposed program centers on environmental taxes as a way to align fossil fuels with their costs to make energy prices “efficient.” Certainly, polluters and causers of global warming should be required to absorb those costs. But given that market forces tilt overwhelmingly in favor of large polluters, the fact of massive imbalances in power, and that governments have handcuffed themselves in terms of confronting capital (a trend itself a product of market forces), it is unrealistic to believe such a program is currently politically feasible.

The disruptions to a capitalist economy with a forced large reduction in energy usage are also significant. It is not only that a capitalist economy can’t function without growing (and a growing economy uses more, not less, energy, especially because of ever more complex machinery and lengthening supply chains), but that a capitalist economy doesn’t offer millions of workers who lose their jobs new work in new industries. Every incentive under capitalism is for more energy usage; thus “the market” will object to dramatically higher energy prices, no matter how rational those higher prices.

Ultimately, the authors of the IMF paper are trapped in the same inability to imagine anything outside the present capitalist system, similar to those who claim that stopping global warming will be virtually cost-free. Their paper has done a necessary service by providing the first real quantification of the gigantic costs of fossil fuels and the massive subsidies they receive. Subsidies for renewable energy, in comparison, are minuscule. The massive subsidies for nuclear energy, which is a complete failure on any rational economic basis before we even get to the physical dangers, demonstrate that nuclear is no solution, either. These should also be eliminated.

The size of the social movement that would be necessary to eliminate all these subsidies would be enormous. Why should such a movement ask for mere reforms that fall well short of what is necessary, worthy as they would be. Energy is too important not to be put in public hands. The trillions of dollars of fossil fuel subsidies are the logical product of allowing private interests to control critical resources for private profit and leaving “the market” to dictate outcomes.

We can’t make what is unsustainable sustainable through a better tax policy. That the enormous scale of reform proposed by the IMF paper still falls far short of what is actually necessary to create a sustainable economy demonstrates the severity of the crises we are only beginning to face.

Nuclear energy dangerous to your wallet, not only the environment

The ongoing environmental disaster at Fukushima is a grim enough reminder of the dangers of nuclear power, but nuclear does not make sense economically, either. The entire industry would not exist without massive government subsidies.

Quite an insult: Subsidies prop up an industry that points a dagger at the heart of the communities where ever it operates. The building of nuclear power plants drastically slowed after the disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, so it is at a minimum reckless that the latest attempt to resuscitate nuclear power pushes forward heedless of Fukushima’s continuing discharge of radioactive materials into the air, soil and ocean.

Gösgen Nuclear Power Plant, Switzerland (photo by Roland Zumbühl)

Gösgen Nuclear Power Plant, Switzerland (photo by Roland Zumbühl)

There are no definitive statistics on the amount of subsidies enjoyed by nuclear power providers — in part because there so many different types of subsidies — but it amounts to a figure, whether we calculate in dollars, euros or pounds, in the hundreds of billions. Quite a result for an industry whose boosters, at its dawn a half-century ago, declared that it would provide energy “too cheap to meter.”

Taxpayers are not finished footing the bill for the industry, however. There is the matter of disposing radioactive waste (often borne by governments rather than energy companies) and fresh subsidies being granted for new nuclear power plants. None of this is unprecedented — government handouts have the been the industry’s rule from its inception. A paper written by Mark Cooper, a senior economic analyst for the Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and the Environment, notes the lack of economic viability then:

“In the late 1950s the vendors of nuclear reactors knew that their technology was untested and that nuclear safety issues had not been resolved, so they made it clear to policymakers in Washington that they would not build reactors if the Federal government did not shield them from the full liability of accidents.” [page iv]

Nor have the economics of nuclear energy become rational today. A Union of Concerned Scientists paper, Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable Without Subsidies, states:

“Despite the profoundly poor investment experience with taxpayer subsidies to nuclear plants over the past 50 years, the objectives of these new subsidies are precisely the same as the earlier subsidies: to reduce the private cost of capital for new nuclear reactors and to shift the long-term, often multi-generational risks of the nuclear fuel cycle away from investors. And once again, these subsidies to new reactors—whether publicly or privately owned—could end up exceeding the value of the power produced.” [page 3]

The many ways of counting subsidies

Among the goodies routinely given away, according to the Concerned Scientists, are:

  • Subsidies at inception, reducing capital costs and operating costs.
  • Accounting rules allowing companies to write down capital costs after cost overruns, cancelations and plant abandonments, reducing capital-recovery requirements.
  • Recovery of “stranded costs” (costs to a utility’s assets because of new regulations or a deregulated market) passed on to rate payers.

Yes, you read that last item correctly. Even when the energy industry receives its wish to be rid of regulation, it is entitled to extra money because of the resulting rigors of market pressures.

John Amos Power Plant in West Virginia (photo by Harry Schaefer/National Archives)

John Amos Power Plant, West Virginia (photo by Harry Schaefer/National Archives)

The amount of government subsidies for nuclear (and for oil and gas) is far greater than that for solar energy, despite Right-wing attempts to exploit the Obama administration’s generous loan guarantees to failed California solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra. A primary source for Right-wing disinformation campaigns against renewable energy appears to be a report by the U.S. Energy Information Agency that lists direct federal government subsidies to renewables as significantly larger than for nuclear or for natural gas and petroleum liquids for fiscal years 2007 and 2010.

The report, prepared at the behest of three hard-line Republican members of the House of Representatives, was narrowly focused, and notes that it “do[es] exclude some subsidies.” And, as a snapshot, the decades of previous handouts to nuclear, oil and gas companies are not accounted for. Nor does the Energy Information Agency report account for legacy costs — solar and wind power, for example, do not leave behind tons of radioactive waste as does nuclear energy.

Numerous research papers paint a fuller picture. A Congressional Research Service report found that nuclear power had received $74 billion for research and development by the U.S. government for the period 1948 to 1998, more than all such money given for fossil fuels, renewables and energy efficiency combined.

A report by the venture-capital firm DBL Investors, Ask Saint Onofrio, reports that nuclear energy cumulatively has received four times more subsidies than solar energy in California, and that nuclear subsidies were higher than solar in 2011 and all previous years. Nuclear has received $8.2 billion in subsidies in California, while providing the state with three percent of its power in 2012.

The uneconomical state of nuclear power is a global phenomenon, not limited to any one place. A comprehensive study prepared for the Green Party of Germany’s Heinrich Böll Stiftung, The Economics of Nuclear Power: An Update, reports:

“Up to now, nuclear power plants have been funded by massive public subsidies. For Germany the calculations roughly add up to over 100 billion Euros and this preferential treatment is still going on today. As a result the billions set aside for the disposal of nuclear waste and the dismantling of nuclear power plants represent a tax-free manoeuvre for the companies. In addition the liability of the operators is limited to 2.5 billion Euros — a tiny proportion of the costs that would result from a medium-sized nuclear accident.” [page 5]

The paper later says:

“Successive studies by the British government in 1989, 1995, and 2002 came to the conclusion that in a liberalised electricity market, electric utilities would not build nuclear power plants without government subsidies and government guarantees that cap costs. In most countries where the monopoly status of the generating companies has been removed, similar considerations would apply.” [page 51]

New plants are being built, with new subsidies

Significant cost overruns are the norm in building nuclear power plants, and it isn’t investors who are on the hook for them.

Three nuclear projects are under construction in the United States and two in Western Europe, a group that features an assortment of cost overruns and generous guarantees:

• The two new Vogtle reactors in Georgia are already $900 million over budget although their completion date is four years away. The largest owner, Southern Company, has received $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees. Overruns at this plant are not unprecedented; the two existing reactors cost $8.7 billion instead of the promised $600 million, resulting in higher electricity rates.

• The Watts Bar 2 nuclear reactor in Tennessee has seen its cost rise to $4.5 billion from $2.5 billion. (This is technically a restart of a unit on which construction was suspended in 1985.) The existing reactor at this site has a history of safety problems.

• The Summer 2 and 3 reactors being built in South Carolina have already caused rate payers there to endure a series of rate increases.

• In October 2013, British authorities approved a new nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point, England, that features subsidies designed to give the owner, Électricité de France, a guaranteed 10 percent rate of return on the project. Power from the plant will be sold at a fixed price, indexed to the consumer inflation rate. In other words, The Independent reports, “should the market price fall below that [agreed-upon] level the Government would make up the difference.” The agreed-upon fixed price is currently double the wholesale price for electricity.

• Olkiluoto-3 in Finland was supposed to have cost €3 billion, but by August 2009 its price had risen to €5.3 billion.

High costs despite high subsidies

There would at least be a small silver lining in this dark picture if the electricity produced were cheap. But that’s not the case. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, the cost of producing electricity from nuclear power in France tripled and in the United States the cost increased fivefold, according to the Vermont Law School paper [page 46].

Then there are the costs of nuclear that are not imposed by any other energy source: What to do with all the radioactive waste? Regardless of who ultimately shoulders these costs, the environmental dangers will last for tens of thousands of years. In the United States, there is the fiasco of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada. The U.S. government has collected $35 billion from energy companies to finance the dump, which is the subject of fierce local opposition and appears to have no chance of being built.

Presumably, the energy companies have passed on these costs to their consumers but nonetheless are demanding the government take the radioactive waste they are storing at their plants or compensate them. As part of this deal, the U.S. government made itself legally responsible for finding a permanent nuclear-waste storage facility.

And, eventually, plants come to the end of their lives and must be decommissioned, another big expense that energy companies would like to be borne by someone else. The Heinrich Böll Stiftung study says:

“[T]here is a significant mismatch between the interests of commercial concerns and society in general. Huge costs that will only be incurred far in the future have little weight in commercial decisions because such costs are ‘discounted.’ This means that waste disposal costs and decommissioning costs, which are at present no more than ill-supported guesses, are of little interest to commercial companies. From a moral point of view, the current generation should be extremely wary of leaving such an uncertain, expensive, and potentially dangerous legacy to a future generation to deal with when there are no ways of reliably ensuring that the current generation can bequeath the funds to deal with them, much less bear the physical risk. Similarly, the accident risk also plays no part in decision-making because the companies are absolved of this risk by international treaties that shift the risk to taxpayers.” [page 17]

The British government, for instance, currently foots more than three-quarters of the bill for radioactive waste management and decommissioning, and for nuclear legacy sites. A report prepared for Parliament estimates that total public liability to date just for this program is around £50 billion, with tens of billions more to come.

Liability caps for accidents are also routine. In the U.S., the Price-Anderson Act, in force since 1957, caps the total liability of nuclear operators in the event of a serious accident or attack to $10.5 billion. If the total is higher, as it surely would be, taxpayers would be on the hook for the rest. As a further sweetener, the Bush II/Cheney administration, in 2005, signed into law new nuclear subsidies and tax breaks worth $13 billion. The Obama administration, attempting its own nuclear push, has offered an additional $36 billion in federal loan guarantees to underwrite new reactor construction, again putting the risk on taxpayers, not investors.

The Vermont Law School paper aptly sums up this picture with this conclusion:

“If the owners and operators of nuclear reactors had to face the full liability of a nuclear accident and meet the alternatives in competition that is unfettered by subsidies, no one would have built a nuclear reactor in the past, no one would build a reactor today, and anyone who owned one would exit the nuclear business as quickly as they could.” [page 69]

If we had a rational economic system, they surely would.