Worldwide Fossil Fuel Subsidy of $523 Billion, Six Times That of Renewables, a Massive and Unconscionable Malinvestment

At a breakneck pace, worldwide public funds are being employed to make the global warming situation far, far worse. In total, 2011’s global fossil fuel subsidy was $523 billion dollars, greatly outweighing a renewable energy subsidy of $88 billion dollars during the same year.

This fact belies the notion, often peddled by the oil, gas, and coal industries, that renewable energy sources require government assistance to remain competitive. The larger truth is that all major energy development projects lean on public support. And, as shown above, dirty, dangerous, and depleting fossil fuels suck up the lion’s share of that benefit.

The extra money was spent, in large part, to tap unconventional and expensive energy reserves such as fracked tight oil, heavy oil, tar sands, high sulfur oil, deep water oil, Arctic oil, fracked gas, and methane hydrates. All these energy sources require massive resource and capital expenditures to extract which is why public funding has been necessary to tap the new reserves. In Russia, it costs more than $100 dollars per barrel to extract the new, marginal oil. In Saudi Arabia, a $100 dollar per barrel level is also needed. In the US, a range of 80-90 dollars per barrel is required.

These new oil reserves are being tapped at a time when it is becoming plainly obvious that much of these new fuels must stay in the ground to prevent climate catastrophe. Price Waterhouse Coopers LLC claims that only 1/3 of the world’s current fossil fuel reserves can be burned without devastating climate impacts. The International Energy Agency uses  the same figure. Carbon Tracker, a UK-based Think Tank, notes that only 20% of the world’s current fossil fuel reserves may be burned if we are to avoid extraordinarily damaging impacts.

According to the geological record, sustained levels of CO2 at 400 ppm is enough to raise temperatures as much as 3-4 degrees Celsius, much higher than any of the above reports currently estimate.

So this begs the obvious question: why are we continuing to subsidize fossil fuels at such a breakneck pace? The cost of extracting these sources keeps growing and growing. This, alone, is enough to question their economic viability. But the fact that at least 2/3s and perhaps nearly all of the current reserves can’t be burned dramatically belies how much money and effort is being wasted.

To me, such policies are not very remote parallels to suicide. Economic and social suicide on the part of oil, gas, and coal companies and climate suicide on the part of the world’s civilizations.

Perhaps, a more productive response would be to subsidize renewables at half a trillion a year? My bet is that these energy sources would rapidly overtake and become far more productive than the dirty, dangerous, and depleting fossil fuels that are, even now, causing violent changes to the world’s climate. And these are energy sources with a future. Ones that don’t wreck, in wholesale fashion, the systems that support the diverse life and livelihood of Earth-bound creatures that form the basis for viable economic systems in the first place.




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