Energy Policy

Environmental author McKibben discusses new subsidy rollback legislation

How would eliminating all fossil fuel subsidies affect the economy? During today's OnPoint, Bill McKibben, environmental author and founder of the grass-roots climate campaign, discusses new legislation introduced last week by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) that would eliminate $113 billion in fossil fuel subsidies over 10 years. McKibben also weighs in on TransCanada Corp.'s recent reapplication for a Keystone XL pipeline permit.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Bill McKibben, environmental author and founder of the grassroots climate campaign, Bill, thanks for coming back on the show.

Bill McKibben: Good to be with you.

Monica Trauzzi: Bill, you're in town to help Senator Sanders and Congressman Ellison announce a bill to eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies. And fossil fuels are a huge part of the U.S. economy and job growth, potential job growth in this country. Why deal a blow to a growing sector and an economically promising sector?

Bill McKibben: Well, they're the richest industry on earth. I mean we're not a country with unlimited sums of money. And the idea that we're pouring it into the pockets of the richest industry on the planet seems perverse at best. Exxon reported profits last year, made more money than any company in the history of money. The idea that they need the tax payers supporting them and their ilk is just crazy.

Monica Trauzzi: You're not just talking about oil in this bill, there's also coal.

Bill McKibben: Oil, coal and gas, all the fossil -- all the carbon producers. The real reason to be going down this route is we shouldn't be subsidizing things we want less of. And every scientific body on this planet has now made it clear that the thing we want less of is carbon in the atmosphere, the thing we desperately need less of.

Monica Trauzzi: Is this too broad a brush stroke though? I mean we're talking about in this bill eliminating $113.3 billion in fossil fuel subsidies over the next 10 years.

Bill McKibben: I don't think it's too broad a brush stroke and all. The polling shows that 80 percent of Republicans, of Independents and of Democrats are tired of, you know, a 100-year policy of subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. If you think about it, it's the exact opposite of how subsidies are supposed to work. You should subsidize new things that are at their infancy trying to, you know, figure out how you're going to do them effectively and efficiently. This is like, you know, I mean we learned how to burn coal 300 years ago. What are we subsidizing?

Monica Trauzzi: Could we see net job losses though in these sectors if these subsidies are removed? And then what are the impacts on the economy?

Bill McKibben: Well, these guys are making money left and right, you know? They can afford to do whatever they're going to do themselves without the taxpayers footing the bill for them.

Monica Trauzzi: One line item in the bill is eliminating DOE loan guarantees for advanced coal projects. Is that really a productive solution though when we're talking about reducing emissions?

Bill McKibben: Yeah, because these, you know, these things aren't showing any promise. No one is willing to do -- you know, taking them on in any big way. They're just one more hole down which to try to avoid the issue of climate, one more sort of screen to avoid coming to terms with the essential problem. And, you know, frankly, the really big-ticket things in this subsidy stuff, some of them are just amazing. BP paid to clean up the oil spill that it spilled in the Gulf of Mexico, but it turns out they're allowed to turn around and write that off as an expense. You know, I mean that's -- it's like you burn down your neighbor's house and then you, you know, help patch it up and charge the government for the lumber. I mean it's crazy.

Monica Trauzzi: There's such an international appetite right now for natural gas. There's a lot of talk about exporting LNG from the United States and there's this big push to produce lots of natural gas and then export it out, which could be great for the U.S. economy. How do you see that?

Bill McKibben: I think that nothing that in the long run, in fact, in the pretty short run is disastrous for our climate is going to be good for our economy. The thing that will push our economy into its next phase will be when we decide to get off fossil fuel and go to clean energy. You know, new studies indicating that in this country alone there are 20 million jobs in that transition. That's what we're really -- but we'll never get there as long as our main policy prescription is coddling the fossil fuel industry a little bit farther. You know, the only reason we do that, the only reason we make backward policy like this is because that industry gives gifts to our political class in the form of campaign donations, who then turn around and give much larger presents back to those companies with our money. That's how it works.

Monica Trauzzi: Well, I think you raise the really critical point that very often climate policies are not necessarily in line with short-term economic policies. How do you sell that politically then, especially in an election year?

Bill McKibben: Well, it's obviously very hard and made no easier by the incredible amounts of money that these guys bring to bear. I mean we all know, for instance, that the biggest single player in the next election is likely to be the Koch brothers. They'll pour in more money than probably anybody else and they'll do it all in the service of continuing their hydrocarbon empire. So it is difficult, but, as the polling shows, 80 percent of people across the parties and among Independents think enough is enough in terms of fossil fuel subsidies. This is an issue unlike climate and things upon which it's actually quite easy for any American not being paid off by the fossil fuel industry to agree.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's talk about Keystone XL, a big, big issue here in Washington. It seems to be moving forward with TransCanada's latest reapplication. There is this thought in the Beltway that the administration is just trying to buy some time, waiting until after the elections and then approval is expected. What do you think of sort of the backroom politics that might be happening on this issue?

Bill McKibben: I have no real idea of the backroom politics. They don't let me in those rooms and I don't really want to go in them in a sense. TransCanada has reapplied, as is their right, and the State Department now is supposed to do real review. I guess the question will be whether they'd do an open, transparent, honest review or the kind of nonsense one they did last time that got them slapped on the wrist by their own Inspector General for the shoddiness of their work. I'm pretty confident that if they do a real review it will be clear, as Jim Hansen pointed out in today's New York Times, that the volume of carbon in the tar sands of Canada is enough to make us try to do everything we can to keep it in the ground.

Monica Trauzzi: The last time you were on the show we focused on climate change. There was climate legislation moving at that time. It's a nonstarter discussion right now here in Washington when you mention cap and trade, climate discussions. How have you sort of had to tweak your approach based on what's happening here in Washington?

Bill McKibben: Well, I mean our approach at we haven't tweaked at all. We keep doing the same thing, which is just spreading the word about what's going on in the world. And, in fact, in that way it's getting much easier to talk about. The polling data shows big increases in the number of Americans concerned about climate change because they've drawn the link between the weird and extreme weather we're seeing now and what the scientists have been warning about for a long time. Now, that doesn't make the politics any easier in Washington necessarily because those politics aren't driven by what people want or what scientists say we need to do. They're driven by who has the money to pay off congressmen, as it were. And you're right, that's a very tough nut to crack. That's why we keep movement building and organizing. And if we need to be back and going to jail again, then I suppose we'll need to do that again too.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it there. Thank you for coming on the show.

Bill McKibben: Thank you, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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