EDITORIAL: Counting on Congress for an Oil Change
By Jacqueline Savitz, Oceana
May 3, 2011 (Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.) Maybe the IRS should rename its 1040 Form the WD-40. After all, after millions of Americans dutifully paid their taxes this year, a hefty chunk of their hard-earned pay went to grease the palms of some of the world's richest oil companies.
But these companies are already well lubricated. Despite profits that surged to nearly $80 billion in 2010, Big Oil will pocket nearly $5 billion in taxpayer handouts this year - even as gas prices soar and our national debt deepens.
One year after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, it's time to ask:
Should we keep shoveling so much tax money to companies that need it so little - and seem to care even less about the long-term health of America's economy and environment?
Not surprisingly, in poll after poll, the American people are saying: "No!" A February NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, found that a whopping majority of Americans - 74 percent - support eliminating long-standing oil industry tax credits worth tens of billions of dollars. President Barack Obama has proposed a change designed to keep the engine of innovation humming. He's asked Congress to dispose of some grubby subsidies that have rewarded Big Oil for bad behavior. And he wants to replace them with more effective incentives for saving energy and shifting to cleaner, greener and safer energy choices.
It's a sensible plan for leveling a playing field too long tilted in Big Oil's favor. It recognizes that we can't just pump our way out of our energy problem. And it would provide the innovative entrepreneurs who are creating tomorrow's energy sources with the same kind of help the nascent oil industry got more than a century ago â€“ but no longer needs.
The plan is also a welcome sign that, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we are recognizing the true costs of dirty energy. We don't pay just once for that gallon of gas or quart of oil, for instance. We pay at least three times: Once at the station; again on Tax Day to cover the subsidies; and then again every time taxpayers have to help clean up the environmental and economic mess created by a leaking pipeline, smashed supertanker or burning offshore rig. It's one thing to mourn the lost lives, oiled birds, fouled beaches and fishing grounds created by these catastrophes. It's quite another, however, to realize that billions of our tax dollars contributed to these disasters by cushioning these companies from the true costs of their mismanagement.
So what's the problem? Apparently, the WD-40 has made its way to Congress, and the well-lubricated process has so far ensured that oil industry subsidies continue to slip through the legislative process.
At Oceana, we're calling on Congress to end this expensive, self-destructive coddling. Oil and gas companies have already received at least $190 billion in subsidies since 1968, according to a recent analysis by Congressional staff. That could grow by an additional $36.5 billion over the next decade, if our laws aren't changed. And that doesn't count an additional $2 billion to $3 billion in royalties per year that companies aren't currently paying on the oil pumped out of certain federal leases offshore, due to sloppy lawmaking and political gridlock. A private company would never give that oil away for free. Why should we, the people?
In these lean times, we can't afford to waste more money on further enriching the oil behemoths. Think of the alternatives. We could pay down our debt. Help our kids become the next Thomas Edison or Bill Gates. Enable today's small offshore wind and "smart power" firms to become tomorrow's Google - or even tomorrow's BP â€“ creating good new jobs and big fortunes along the way.
Replacing oil won't happen overnight. But it won't happen at all unless we make smarter choices now about spending the public's money.
First, Congress should act now, as urged by President Obama, to end unnecessary handouts to Big Oil. Second, make sure the companies pay fair royalties on the crude they pump from public lands and waters. Finally, invest in people and companies that will create the next energy revolution - building everything from better offshore wind turbines to electric cars. It's time we started using our scarce tax dollars for the benefit of all Americans - and stopped handing them over to a handful of wealthy oil executives. Come on Congress, it's time for an oil change.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jacqueline Savitz is senior climate and energy campaign director for Oceana, an ocean conservation group; website: www.oceana.org.