Thursday, December 08, 2016

Critics of Elon Musk are drunk on a Trump future

I admire Elon Musk for his many achievements. He has created some great companies. He is leading the charge to replace our fleet of leaky, smelly and dirty petroleum powered cars with electric cars and the Hyperloop. He is perhaps the most serious of the billionaires that are seeking to resist global warming with action. He is also the target of relentless criticism from conservatives in the United States that will only grow more intense now that Trump has won the presidency.

In the UK, The Guardian has taken notice of this criticism with their article, The trolling of Elon Musk: how US conservatives are attacking green tech. Their article describes in lucid detail, how conservatives are on the attack, seeking to challenge the success of Elon Musk. The common denominator among all the complaints lobbed at Musk? Government subsidies. From the article:
But having been feted by the Obama administration, he now faces an extraordinary barrage of attacks from rightwing thinktanks, lobbyists, websites and commentators. The character of the assault says much about which way the political wind is blowing in Washington – something that will have consequences that stretch far beyond the US.
Confident of Trump's victory, conservatives are continuing their offensive, challenging the nascent green economy that is rising to replace a dangerous and aging infrastructure designed to extract, distribute and burn coal, oil and natural gas. While conservatives openly extol the virtues of our dirty fossil fuel industries, they are loathe to mention the trillions in subsidies received by the fossil fuel industries worldwide. They would also like us to forget the big money influence of the fossil fuel industries on Congress.

Open Secret estimates that the oil and gas industries have given $91 million for the 2016 election cycle alone and the vast majority of that went to Republicans. Koch Industries are at the top of the list. Coal trailed far behind oil and gas at $12 million. All of this money was intended to buy favorable treatment in the form of lax regulation and generous subsidies. These policy decisions allow fossil fuel companies to undercut alternative and renewable energy sources, as well as avoid the costs of the damage done to the environment. To say that conservative conservatives in Congress prefer a free market would be a farce at best.

According to the IMF, worldwide energy subsidies for 2015 are estimated to run at $5.3 trillion. That is, governments around the world are subsidizing the cost of fossil fuels to keep them competitive in the market despite the damage they inflict on the environment. Even if we set aside the issue of global warming, the toll taken on the environment is often catastrophic at the local level and is not included in the price of the fossil fuels we buy and burn. Fossil fuel companies only pay for the immediate costs associated with cleanup if we are lucky enough to catch them, and somehow manage to avoid the long term costs of their damage to the environment.

Fossil fuel subsidies tower over renewable subsidies. An article at CleanTechnica shows that over the history of federal energy subsidies, fossil fuels have accumulated $446 billion in federal subsidies compared to just $5 billion in renewable energy subsidies. CleanTechnica also points out that fossil fuel production subsidies (the Oil Depletion Allowance) remains constant while renewable subsidies (Investment Tax Credit) go down over time.

In 2015, International Business Times estimated that direct subsidies of fossil fuels by the federal government total around $20 billion a year. But this figure does not include one of the biggest subsidies of all: military intervention and the threat of the same. The United States maintains more than 800 military bases worldwide, and The Nation estimates that the total costs of our military bases worldwide is about $156 billion a year. This is an implicit trade subsidy, but the cost is often framed in terms of national defense.

Speaking of trade subsidies and military bases, can anyone tell me if it is possible to negotiate a fair trade agreement between the greatest military power on earth and any other country? I doubt anyone could seriously believe that the threat of the use of all that power was not implied in any trade negotiations at any time in modern American history. All of our trade agreements are backed by the full force and power of the United States military.

And let us not forget the latest fiasco, the Dakota Access Pipeline. Millions have been spent to promote and build the pipeline only to have the last required permit denied. So confident is Energy Transfer Partners that they can get the last permit, in their very public response to the Army's decision to deny the last remaining permit, they insist they're going to get that last permit eventually. I suspect that if the right person is paid, they'll get their permit, even if they have to wait until Obama is out of office.

The ACLU estimates that 76 agencies have descended upon the site of the protest, most of them from foreign jurisdictions: 8 other states and numerous other counties in North Dakota. To put it differently, numerous local and state agencies made a decision to allocate resources to quell the protests instead of working in their local jurisdictions. Their collective decision to intervene represent a direct subsidy of the costs to build the pipeline. This was an intervention on behalf of the oil industry for oil that will most likely be exported as the Dakota Access Pipeline is connected to another pipeline that takes the oil straight to the Gulf Coast.

The Dakota Access Pipeline has nothing to do with keeping the cost of gas at the pump lower or reducing American dependence on foreign oil. According to Lee Fang at The Intercept, at least some of the oil will be exported. Fang also says that Energy Transfer Partners declined to defend their claim that 100% of the oil would be used domestically.

While conservatives are lobbing attacks at Elon Musk for his government subsidies, remember that they're going to deflect attention away from the enormous subsidies behind fossil fuels. Conservatives will wax eloquent about the virtues of the free market while steering you away from all of the evidence of the subsidies incurred by fossil fuels.

Let's be clear: we get it that both renewable energy and fossil fuels get subsidies. But we have to decide what is better for us. Where do we want to put our money? Do we want clean, renewable energy or do we want to continue with our dependence on a dangerous and dirty infrastructure for fossil fuels? What kind of future do we want for our kids? I'm a lot less worried about a sunspill or a windspill than an oil spill or a carbon ash spill. How about you?
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