The Mystery of Fossil Fuel Subsidies

By Chris Mooney | February 14, 2011 3:05 pm

President Obama wants to slash fossil fuel subsidies in his new budget–and in his State of the Union Address, he called for cutting $ 4 billion in tax breaks and subsidies for oil companies. But how much in total subsidies do fossil energy companies get from the U.S. government?

According to this post from Scaling Green, coming up with an answer to that question is actually extremely difficult:

Energy trends analyst Chris Namovicz of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) was the latest speaker in our “Communicating Energy” lecture series. We took the opportunity to ask one of the top, neutral energy trends analysts in the country the question, “Do you know if someone has actually done a credible, comprehensive, definitive count of how much taxpayers underwrite fossil fuels in this country?” We added the thought that “there’s no one really widely available number where average citizens can say, yeah, this much of my money goes to pay ExxonMobil.”

According to Namovicz, there really isn’t such a widely available, definitive, comprehensive number.

Part of the problem is the complexity of the question. What’s a subsidy? Are we talking federal, state, both? What about when the military ships oil, or protects oil shipping lanes–is that a “subsidy”?

One thing seems clear–the total yearly figure is probably significantly higher than $ 4 billion.


Comments (1)

  1. Good question! Talk is cheap, but let us see someone add up some specific verifyable numbers. I can’t do this, but…

    I start from Wikipedia lobbying expenses. Energy industry comes in 5th after 1st Finance and 2nd Medical and others. Energy industry includes oil, coal, nuclear, and transmission/retail.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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