Federal support for energy technologies has been a central piece of this year’s presidential and congressional campaigning. Since last week’s presidential debate, however, the issue become even more interesting.
Mitt Romney surprised many during the debate when he said that cutting billions of dollars in yearly tax breaks for the oil and gas industry would be “on the table.” Of course, he followed that up by grossly inflating federal investments for renewables and lying about the number of clean energy companies that went bankrupt.
Still, Romney’s statement is notable considering that he’s never said anything like it as a presidential candidate. (It’s also very likely that Romney — who once called himself “severely conservative” — made the comment only to Etch-A-Sketch himself back to being a centrist, as he tried to on almost every issue during the debate).
Yesterday brought another surprise comment on the issue from a prominent Republican. In a debate against his Democratic challenger last night, Fred Upton (R-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, took Romney’s comments further and actually proposed an end to federal tax support for fossil fuels: “I’m for putting all of these on an even footing. Let’s look at the oil and gas subsidies, let’s take them away. Let’s let them compete just like everyone else at the same level.” Upton then went on to criticize government investments in renewable energy.
Like many other politicians who oppose federal support for clean energy, both Romney and Upton have previously protected tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry (Romney through his campaign, Upton through House votes). However, now that they’re being forced to message to the general electorate, both candidates are changing positions to make their opposition to renewable energy spending sound more reasonable.
Whether or not Romney and Upton are being sincere or just saying what may get them elected, they’ve added their prominent voices to a chorus of Republicans and conservative free-marketeers who want to see an end to all federal support for energy — mostly clean energy.
This argument is quickly becoming the new “center” of the debate. While a realistic conversation around how, how much, and how long to incentivize certain energy sources is absolutely necessary, it’s important that clean energy advocates not get pulled in to the question of if the government should lend its support to emerging industries.
As we’ve covered over and over, it’s preposterous to claim that the free market delivered us the energy system we have today. We’ve enjoyed cheap fossil fuels in part because of government’s attempts to bring the industry to scale. Over the last century, the federal government has practically given away land for extraction of coal, oil and gas; helped build infrastructure to transport fuels; and has provided a range of tax breaks, loan programs, and technical support for the fossil fuel industry. But now that the clean energy industry is asking for many of the same incentives in order to compete against an incumbent industry, hypocritical politicians call it “picking winners and losers.”
And that makes the second point so crucial. It’s important to remember why we’re putting federal and state support behind clean energy in the first place. We have to limit our use of fossil fuels within a pretty compressed time frame in order to transition to a low-carbon future and avoid irreversible climate change. Period. And that means providing support for renewable energy, efficiency and conservation while taking away support for the polluting resources causing the problem. Global warming pollution needs to be a loser since it is the greatest threat to human health and well-being. It’s as simple as that.
Of course, actual implementation isn’t so simple. Finding the appropriate level of federal support depends on where you sit on the political spectrum and how urgent you see the problem. But the problem is that politicians aren’t debating the most effective ways to support clean energy — they’re mostly just arguing about whether or not to support the sector at all. Therefore, the “middle of the road” political answer is to get rid of all support for energy. That’s a big mistake.
Clean energy advocates have reacted to this argument in a variety of ways. Grist’s David Roberts argues that it would be silly for the industry to give up support when fossil fuels have received a century of favorable treatment; prominent solar expert Jigar Shah believes that the renewable energy industry should gladly accept a phase-out or elimination of tax subsidies in exchange for the removal of federal tax support for fossil fuels; and Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution argued yesterday in the Wall Street Journal for a mid-term phase-out of clean energy incentives in order to maintain federal political support.
These three experts might disagree on the timing and extent of phasing out incentives. But they all agree that some level of support for clean energy is needed in order to address climate change.
Moving forward, we must have a conversation around how to adapt federal support as the economics of clean energy continue to improve. But the “repeal all subsidies” argument is a political distraction from the real issue. We need to move away from fossil fuels, and we need to do so quickly — and that means continuing support for renewables and efficiency.