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For Us or His Donors?

By Alli J. Welton

President Obama, Congressional leaders, and over one million people have called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. However, Massachusetts junior Senator Scott Brown was caught on camera in early July declaring that “oil companies do not get subsidies.”

What’s going on? A simple linguistic trick—the word “subsidies” can refer to direct grants alone. Using this definition, Senator Brown is partially correct—most federal support to oil companies is written into the tax code (though some fossil fuel projects receive direct grants through R&D or transportation funds). But this is a pointless distinction—whether one calls them “subsidies” or “tax policy”, the United States government still spends $11 billion each year on tax exemptions and other special financing for oil, gas, and coal (the “fossil fuel” energy sources which cause global warming). The revenue foregone by exempting fossil fuel companies from their fair share of taxes has to be made up somewhere—ultimately, the citizen taxpayer foots the bill.

Federal support of an industry through tax breaks can make sense when assisting the industry advances the public good. However, it is unclear how American lives are bettered by fossil fuel tax exemptions.

Fossil fuel tax giveaway policy is a clear economic loss for consumers. In 2009, economists Stephen P. Brown and Maura Allaire published a study detailing the economic impacts of removing $5.5 billion of the fossil fuel subsidies written into the tax code. They show that the policy decreases energy prices between $2.29 and $6.60 per person each year—but the average taxpayer dishes out $16.13 for this price reduction. In other words, we pay a dollar and only get back 40 cents. Thus, these favoritist tax policies burden the average American consumer with an extra expense rather than providing any relief.

Since the policy is an economic burden to his constituents, Senator Brown must have other motivations for voting to extend fossil fuel tax loopholes. His support can’t arise from concern about his constituents’ health and lives—dangerous fossil fuel pollution leads to high rates of asthma and cancer in local communities, while American lives have already been lost to extreme natural disasters like wildfires, hurricanes and drought exacerbated by climate change. The Senator’s support for fossil fuel tax giveaways can’t be an effort to create jobs and boost the economy out of the recession—economists at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have found that investments in fossil fuel energy create far fewer jobs than equal investments in safe renewable energy, energy efficiency, or mass transit. Senator Brown’s votes to keep up the status quo of federal energy subsidies—with dirty energy sources receiving more than twice as much support as the job-creating safe energy options—are thus votes to keep unemployment high. The Allaire and Brown study found that fossil fuel subsidies have only a “slight” effect on national security. Any positive effects on national security are probably offset by the negative national security effects of increasing political instability from rising food prices due to global warming-induced droughts and natural disasters, a threat so worrisome that the Defense Department considers it  a “prominent military vulnerability.”

From every angle, the policy is a waste of money—so why does Senator Brown continue keep voting to hand out his constituents’ tax dollars to fossil fuel corporations? For nearly half a year now, students from across Massachusetts, myself included, have been attempting to find out. Staff from Senator Brown’s Boston office say that they don’t know the reasoning behind the Senator’s votes. His Washington D.C. office has not responded to us or to the many inquiries sent by the Boston staff on our behalf. The Senator’s impenetrable silence leaves us to search for justification outside the earnest assumption that our elected representatives only strive to act in the public interest.

We don’t have to search far. In return for Senator Brown’s generous gift of our tax dollars, the fossil fuel industry fills his campaign coffers. In the past two years, Senator Brown has received $319,460 directly from the fossil fuel industry, five times as much money as Senator Kerry has taken from fossil fuel companies in the past 13 years.  Senator Brown’s voting record clearly indicates the value of the fossil fuel industry’s investment—votes to gut the Clean Air Act and release industrial toxins into our communities, votes to prevent action on global warming, and, of course, repeated votes to give our money to the fossil fuel companies who finance his campaigns. Clearly, the deadly energy industry doesn’t just destroy our health and communities—they’ve destroyed Senator Brown’s independence as well.

If “he’s for us”, as Senator Brown’s campaign slogan claims, why doesn’t he act for us rather than his donors?

Alli J. Welton ’15 lives in Dudley House.

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