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A Congressional Push to End All Fossil Fuel Subsidies | The Nation

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George Zornick

George Zornick

Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to george@thenation.com

A Congressional Push to End All Fossil Fuel Subsidies

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaks outside the US Capitol on May 10 to promote legislation to end taxpayer support of dirty energy industries. Photo by George Zornick.

Over the next ten years, the oil, gas and coal industries are slated to receive $113 billion in taxpayer subsidies—that’s six times the rate at which clean energy initiatives are subsidized. Americans will fund everything from development research for the industry to loan guarantees. There are all kinds of absurd tax breaks—for example, since 1951 the coal industry has been allowed to treat income from coal mines as capital gains, which is now taxed at a 15 percent maximum, instead of as regular income like most other businesses in the country.

Democrats have often presented bills to end a various portions of these subsidies, but a new bicameral bill—introduced by Bernie Sanders in the Senate and Keith Ellison in the House—would wipe out every last subsidy and tax break the industry receives.

“In these difficult economic times, it is imperative that we support the taxpayers of this country, the working people of this country, and not the fossil fuel industry—one of the most powerful and profitable industries in the world,” said Sanders at a rally Thursday morning outside the Capitol building.

Bill McKibben, leader of 350.org, a key player in the White House protests that helped stop the Keystone XL pipeline, appeared with Sanders and Ellison at the rally and explained that the push was about more than halting the waste of taxpayer dollars.

“One of the most important things we can do to grapple with our energy and our climate problems is to end the craziness of sending taxpayer money off to the richest industries on earth,” he said. “It’s an industry whose carbon is doing deep damage around the planet. We need to stop paying them a performance bonus for the environmental damage that they’re creating.”

The Sanders-Ellison legislation combs the federal register and tax code for fossil fuel industry subsidies, tax breaks, special financing and the like and scraps each one. Among them:

  • $12 billion in savings from repealing a 2004 law that allows fossil fuel companies to take manufacturing deductions.

  • $6.8 billion in savings by closing a loophole that allows companies like BP to deduct the expenses of cleaning up their own spills and environmental hazards

  • $2.4 billion in savings by stopping fossil fuel companies from investing through Master Limited Partnerships, which is an avenue not available to clean energy companies

  • $14 billion in savings by eliminating the intangible drilling deduction, which provides capital to fossil fuel companies for drilling projects

Polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans favor junking these subsidies, but of course it’s not that simple. The fossil fuel industry is extremely powerful in Washington and is on track to give the current Congress more money than ever before.

Several speakers at the rally presented spoke not only of legislative action, but activism as well. “The American people have yet to fully muster our great and awesome power,” said Ellison, who has a petition on his website to end polluter welfare. “But when we do, we will wipe these subsidies right out of the box.” 

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