The chemical spill in West Virginia that polluted the drinking water of more than 300,000 people should remind everyone of the real cost of fossil fuels. As you know, conservatives are fond of saying that subsidies for research and the expansion of alternative energy are unfair; that they disguise the true cost of solar, wind and other forms of clean, renewable energy. Of course, they never mention the massive direct subsidies our government gives to the coal, oil and gas industries (estimated at $14 billion to $51 billion per year) or the indirect subsidies (the cost of damage to our environment; the cost of health problems that result from breathing polluted air and drinking polluted water; the cost of clean ups of spills; the cost of regulation).
If all of the indirect costs were added, the total subsidies for the fossil fuel industries are almost incalcuable and they’re certain to grow as we deal with the damages caused by climate change.
By comparison, the indirect costs of renewable energy are almost negligible. Wind generators require materials for manufacture and fossil fuels to transport them to their eventual sites. They also reportedly cause the deaths of some birds. But those deaths are dwarfed by the number of birds killed and endangered by oil spills and from drinking chemical pollutants. Solar panels also require manufacture and transportation. But that’s it.
Once in operation, neither add CO2 to the atmosphere. Neither can cause toxic spills. Wind and solar generation is decentralized so there’s less chance of widespread power outages. Both eliminate the need for daily trainloads of fuels. They require no pipelines. There is no need to remove entire mountaintops. No need to pump toxic chemicals into the earth in order to extract wind or sun. And there is no need for waste disposal. When the wind generators and solar panels become obsolete, most of their materials can be recycled.
Best of all, they create jobs in the US, and they would create a lot more if Congress would provide manufacturers with the incentives and protections needed to fend off state-sponsored manufacturers in China. They also reduce the need for fossil fuels, which should make our reserves of oil and gas last well into the future.
So why do Congressional Republicans continue to rubber stamp subsidies for oil, gas and coal while denying much smaller subsidies for alternative energy? The answer, as always, is money.
The majority of fossil fuels are extracted from red states, such as Alaska, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming. Most refineries are also located in red states – Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. Oil, gas and coal companies have very deep pockets from decades of favored political status and profiteering. They have one of the largest lobbying groups in Washington. The companies and their billionaire owners are willing to spend whatever it takes to retain their monopolies. Moreover, the Citizens United ruling by the conservative-dominated Supreme Court made it possible for corporations to offer large donations to political campaigns. And politicians are more than willing to accept them.