Gushing subsidies

Military spending is just one type of public subsidy that benefits the oil industry and keeps the price at gas stations artificially low. When I made my adolescent wager on Amoco, I was not aware that the
company also profited from massive tax breaks and other non-military forms of support. Yet these go a long way toward making the enterprise a safe bet for investors. Copulos factored some of them into his $11 per gallon calculation; others would drive the price still higher.

In early July, The New York Times reported: “With federal officials now considering a new tax on petroleum production to pay for [the BP oil spill] cleanup, the industry is fighting the measure … But an examination of the American tax code indicates that oil production is among the most heavily subsidized businesses, with tax breaks available at virtually every stage of the exploration and extraction process.” Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) added, “The flow of revenues to oil companies is like the gusher at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico: heavy and constant. There is no reason for these corporations to shortchange the American taxpayer.”

The Times story notes that BP was, for instance, able to write off 70 percent of what it was paying in rent for the Deepwater Horizon rig that caught fire, “a deduction of more than $225,000 a day since the lease began.” Amazingly, BP is also claiming a $9.9 billion tax credit for its response to its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Not only does our government allow energy companies to avoid taxes in myriad ways, the variety of public supports for the oil industry outside the tax code are almost too numerous to list. A 1995 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists mentioned several, including these: the government invests in substantial energy research that directly benefits the oil industry; it spends millions to maintain a Strategic Petroleum Reserve, designed to help stabilize the oil supply; and it maintains a massive highway system that facilitates gas-intensive auto travel, only part of which is paid for by taxes on motorists.

Then, of course, there is the environmental price we pay, most notably in the form of global warming. As Ezra Klein wrote recently in Newsweek, some experts argue that carbon emissions from cars could be offset at the cost of about 65 cents per gallon (money that would presumably be invested in activities like reforestation). Others believe the cost would be much steeper — perhaps steep enough to turn oil industry profits into losses.

Andrew Simms of the British New Economics Foundation calculated that, if you were to combine BP’s exploration, extraction, and production activities with those involved in the sale of its products, you would end up with 1,458 million tons of CO2-equivalent entering the atmosphere per year. Pricing the cost of carbon emissions at $35 per ton, he puts the bill for climate-change damages at $51 billion. Since BP reported a mere $19 billion in profits in 2006, the year Simms was reviewing, he argues that it would have been “$31 billion in the red,” or effectively bankrupt, if it had to cover the climate-change bill.

There’s more, too. Consider that car exhaust and oil industry pollution mean an increase in smog and asthma, burdening our health-care system. Then count in the damage caused by massive oil spills we seldom hear about in places like Nigeria, Ecuador, or China, as well as the economic cost of traffic congestion and excess auto accidents made possible by subsidized car travel (costs which the willfully contrarian Freakonomics blog contends may be even more expensive than global warming). The final tally is staggering. High-end estimates of the true costs of the gas we use come to over $15 per gallon. Taxpayers subsidize significant parts of this sum without even knowing it.

That which makes life worthwhile

To the extent that energy corporations are made to spend more to do business in the future — forced, for example, to pay for mandatory safety measures, pricier insurance policies, or taxes from which they were previously exempt — some of the costs of oil could be “internalized.” If enough costs were accounted for, some companies, no longer confident that their efforts would be profitable, might begin to reconsider exploiting harder-to-extract reserves of fossil fuels. A recent article in the British Guardian offered this scenario: “If the billions of dollars of annual subsidies and the many tax breaks the industry gets were withdrawn, and the cost of protecting oil companies in developing countries were added, then most of the world’s oil would almost certainly be left in the ground.”

Unfortunately, this is surely an overstatement. If the exploits of oil companies were made more costly, these companies would simply raise their prices and pass along the costs to consumers. And we would pay them because we are unwilling to give up the speed and convenience of driving, or the luxury of airline travel. We would pay them because we are unwilling to reduce our consumption of foods shipped to our grocery stores from far away, or diminish our energy consumption in many other ways. We would pay them in order to maintain at least a facsimile of our previous lives.

Or would we?

While it is too much to say that “most of the world’s oil” would be abandoned, some might be. In 2008, when gas prices soared above $4 per gallon, Americans did behave differently. As the New York Times reported, we drove 10 billion fewer miles per month than the year before; surprising numbers of SUV owners traded in their vehicles for smaller, more efficient cars; and daily oil consumption was lowered by 900,000 barrels. Investors began to reconsider how “realistic” the costs of developing alternative energies might be and to fund them more seriously. In other words, Americans responded to the market.

This was a hopeful sign. At the same time, reacting to the market’s cues will not be enough to sort out our relationship to oil and the oil business. We must also reckon with the market’s limits. Appreciating the full magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon crisis requires us to recognize that the market is inherently unable to account for many of the things we hold most precious. Robert F. Kennedy pointed to this problem in one of his most powerful speeches, explaining that the gross national product measures everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Some things cannot be — or should not be — left to business spreadsheets. Calculating the cost of a destroyed ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico or along the coast of Alaska means putting a price tag on things that are not meant to be priced. If you accept that a harbor seal’s life is indeed worth $700, and a killer whale’s $300,000, pretty soon you must accept that your own life has a price tag on it as well.

Yet taking the limits of economic calculus seriously has implications. It means that we cannot trust the market to solve its own proble
ms — to self-regulate and self-correct. It means that we need democratic action to place controls on corporate behavior. It means that some things must be considered not merely expensive but sacred, and defended against forces blind to their true value.