The Climate Crisis In Our Tax Code

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This week, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg gave a blistering speech to world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly on their climate inaction, castigating them for only talking about “fairytales of eternal economic growth.” 

She’s right – but fairytales of growth don’t even scratch the surface of our fossil fuel economic problem. Fossil fuels are, unfortunately, so deeply embedded in our political economy that the American taxpayer, even the most staunch environmentalist, ends up footing the bill for our own climate destruction.

The awful reality is that most of the major fossil fuel companies in America – companies like Chevron, Halliburton, and Occidental Petroleum – rarely ever pay a dime in federal taxes. In fact, between 2008 and 2015, the top fossil fuel companies avoided a collective $113 billion in federal taxes. Some even got rebates from the government!

You might think that these companies are simply gaming the system, but the truth is worse. Our tax code deliberately encourages fossil fuel exploration, production, and manufacturing through a mind-boggling number of incentives, tax breaks, and special loopholes for energy companies. Estimates put the rough figure of subsidies given out to fossil fuel companies per year at around $4.76 billion. 

But wait! It gets worse. 

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act made the problem much worse by slashing the already low corporate tax rate, opening up more land in the Arctic to drilling and oil exploration, and offering a handy new deduction to fossil fuel companies for capital expenditures. Essentially, if all the major corporations benefit handsomely from these tax cuts, fossil fuel companies made an absolute killing. 

Industry lobbyists, and the oil money-fueled politicians who represent them, try to argue that these incentives are necessary to spur investment in our energy industry and keep American power supply in American hands. At a time when, as Thunberg points out, we have an extremely limited carbon budget and just a few years left to rapidly decarbonize on a scale never seen before in human history, it seems there are a few other priorities that are necessary – and forcing taxpayers to subsidize their own demise hardly seems one of them.

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