The modern American economy was built, in large part, on fossil fuels. Rather than heavily investing in public transportation throughout the 20th century, the U.S. government sought to promote ubiquitous car ownership in America in order to fuel its industrial economy (quite successfully as the American automobile industry was, for a significant period, the dominant supplier of cars in the world) and meet the transpirational needs of its highly dispersed population (crisscrossing the country with numerous, publicly financed, highways). For these, but certainly other reasons as well (i.e. strategic military concerns, direct or indirect personal financial stakes in private energy firms among policy makers and government officials, etc.), the U.S. government has worked hand in hand with the several corporations (i.e. BP, ExxonMobil, etc.) that make up the fossil fuel industry to ensure the constant supply of oil and gas to its economy for more than a century. However, the immediate and future, destructive effects of global climate change, a process which the overwhelming majority of the scientific community attribute to the exponential and growing emission of greenhouses gases resulting from human activity (fossil fuel usage foremost among those activities), is placing more and more pressure on the U.S. and other governments to implement policies designed to curb such emissions. Even so, the U.S. government remains relatively unresponsive to this increasingly dire situation (it is one of only four nations to refuse ratification of, and ultimately abandon, the Kyoto Protocol [a multilateral treaty designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions globally]). Given the fact that the United States produced 19% of humanity’s emissions in 2008, this inaction toward climate change on the part of the U.S. government is dangerous.
The U.S. government remains unable to implement policies designed to curb its population’s greenhouse gas emissions and thereby address the threats posed by climate change because of the significant political obstacles presented by the fossil fuel industry. Big Oil is, and has for more than a century been, one of the most powerful special interests in American politics. It’s representatives utilize the industry’s significant financial resources and political clout to block or cripple any legislation or policies that might impede the maximal profitability of the corporations that form that industry, meaningful climate change initiatives in particular. The industry exerts itself politically in a variety of ways. It spends millions annually on political campaign contributions and lobbying, staffs government agencies with Big Oil operatives (thus establishing iron triangles between the industry and government regulatory agencies) and utilizes generous government subsidies to maintain dominance in the energy market over potential competitors (i.e. wind, solar, etc.). Understanding these factors is necessary before any meaningful efforts to severely undermine the industry’s political influence and thus free up more government officials to pursue policies designed to address climate change can be made.
The industry’s overall political contributions exceeded $140 million in 2012 alone. Generally, the industry transcends political parties, contributing more to which ever side favors their views more in a given circumstance. For example, Democrat Barack Obama received significantly more campaign contributions from Big Oil in his 2008 presidential than his supposedly more pro-business opponent John McCain. Furthermore, the industry collectively spends around $174 million a year on relentless lobbying efforts to ensure that its interests are consistently represented in any energy related policy or legislation. Importantly, the industry strategically targets certain legislators, with the aim of maximizing their returns. In the 2010 election cycle, individual members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee each received an average of $52,000 either directly or indirectly from the industry. The ease with which the oil and gas industry is able to legally utilize its substantial financial interests in order to hijack the government and further enrich itself at the expense of humanity’s welfare is disturbing and dangerous in and of itself, but it is also reflective of contemporary America’s increasingly oligarchic political process, wherein politicians are incentivized to serve the interests of the highest bidder rather than that of their constituents. In response to this trend, disgruntled citizens should join with grassroots groups like Mayday PAC and Wolf PAC and petition their state level representatives to call for a Article V Constitutional Convention to amend the U.S. constitution and limit the influence of money in politics. Thanks to widespread grassroots campaigning, Vermont’s state government was the first state to do this on May 2, 2014 and California’s has since followed.
Big Oil largely regulates itself, with most significant government positions tasked with policing the industry staffed by either former and/or future industry operatives. It was just this kind of blatant collusion than helped create the regulatory failure that lead to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Sylvia Baca, a BP executive, was appointed to serve as a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management by Obama’s Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar (who himself had close ties to “Big Oil”) in 2009. In addition, Obama’s Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, a recipient of a $500 million grant from BP oil while head of a research institute at the University of California, appointed BP’s chief scientist, Steven Koonin, as DOE undersecretary of science upon entering office. BP’s political activities present a particularly egregious example of regulatory failure: 22 of their 37 registered lobbyists have held high level positions in the executive and legislative branches or as senior staffers. Regarding the Minerals Management Service, which waived obligatory environmental reviews and permits that could have prevented the 2010 disaster for offshore drilling in the Gulf and other places, Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight has said that “the revolving door has spun so readily in this case that the lines between the regulators and the regulated are now virtually nonexistent.”
Estimates regarding the annual amount of U.S. tax dollars spent on government subsidies for the oil and gas industry range from $14 to $52 billion. Importantly, the industry likely would not maintain the dominance in the energy market that it currently does, and historically has, were it not for these subsidies. It will remain difficult, if not impossible, for alternative energy sources to compete with fossil fuels in the energy market so long as Big Oil continues to benefit from such disproportionate public investment. U.S. government subsidies for the industry come in a variety of forms, including, but not limited to, special tax levies and exemptions, low cost government provided insurance and indemnification, government funded R&D in energy, regulatory exemptions, first choice for government energy contracts, energy price controls, cheap loans, provision of information not privy to competitors, restrictions on trade related to energy, government ownership of costly components of energy production, direct spending, customer subsidies and government lending. Hydraulic fracturing, the highly destructive process by which natural natural gas is extracted from deep underground, came into being as a method of energy acquisition due to the $100 million of government research and development. As always, the fruits of this publicly funded, albeit controversial, research initiative are currently being reaped by private energy companies, while the inevitable environmental and health costs which will be incurred by fracking will fall on taxpayers and residents near fracking locations.
Climate change will not be meaningfully addressed by the United States until the fossil fuel industry’s political power is seriously undermined. This is the case because that industry, which rightly sees initiatives designed to limit greenhouse emissions as threatening to the maximal profitability of their ventures, utilizes lax campaign finance laws, flagrant iron triangles and extensive government subsidies that maintain the industry’s domination over the energy market in order to crush such proposals and abort alternative energy initiatives. This reality is endemic of a larger oligarchical trend in U.S. politics.
Source(s): 1) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007,” World Health Organization, United Nations Environmental Programme, (2007): accessed July 31, 2014. http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/main.html.
2) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, “Status of Ratification of the Kyoto Protocol,” (2014), accessed July 31, 2014, http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/status_of_ratification/items/2613.php.
3) United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data,” (2013), accessed July 31, 2014, http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/global.html.
4) Center for Responsive Politics, “Totals by Sector,” OpenSecrets.org (2014): accessed July 31, 2014, https://www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/sectors.php?cycle=2012.
5) Kurtzelben, Danielle, “Exxon, Chevron, BP Greased Obama’s Campaign,” USNews, (May 14, 2011) accessed June 14, 2014, http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/washington-whispers/2011/03/14/exxon-chevron-bp-greased-obamas-campaign.
6) Dan Brennan, “Behind the Gulf oil crisis: Big Oil extends its political influence,” World Socialist Web Site, (June 7, 2010) accessed May 5, 2014, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2010/06/spil-j07.html.
7) Oil Change International, “Fossil Fuel Subsidies in the U.S.,” (2014) accessed May 6, 2014, http://priceofoil.org/fossil-fuel-subsidies/.
8) Kevin Begos, “Fracking Developed With Decades Of Government Investment,” Huffington Post (2012): accessed July 31, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/23/fracking-developed-government_n_1907178.html.