A common response to such proposals is to tsk-tsk: "Prohibitively expensive!" "The government can't pick winners!" But we are already showering billions of dollars every year on the dirty energies of yesteryear. Even if we don't want the Apollo Project, shouldn't we be dismantling the Anti-Apollo Project of perverse subsidies?
Then again, if we ended the subsidies to the dinosaurs, who would bankroll the GOP? In 2000, oil and gas gave $13 to presidential candidate George Bush for every $1 to candidate Al Gore. Coal gave $9 out of every $10 to Republicans. And according to the Center for Public Integrity, the top 100 officials in the Bush White House have the majority of their personal investments, up to $144.6-million, sunk in the old-guard energy sector.
The Green Scissors Campaign, an alliance of environmentalists and taxpayer watchdogs, parses the Bush-backed energy bill giveaways: $21.2-billion for oil and gas, $5.8-billion for coal, $5.9-billion for utilities and $2.7-billion for nuclear power. That same oilman's orgy included, for green window dressing, a wind PTC extension, but while the wind PTC couldn't get a hearing on its own, nuclear power certainly could. Last fall, House Republicans worked furiously on legislation that, in the event of a nuclear catastrophe, hands taxpayers the bill. This federal insurance program for nuclear power was approved under rules that keep everyone anonymous — rules usually reserved for noncontroversial matters like renaming post offices. A White House statement praised this sneaky vote: "To assure the future of nuclear energy, (taxpayer-subsidized) liability coverage must continue for nuclear activities." (In other words: The White House concedes that nuclear power can't survive in a free market.) This subsidy, the Price-Anderson Act, awaits Senate action along with the rest of the subsidy binge; it is already part of the Daschle-Bingaman bill.
Arguably, fossil fuels and nuclear deserve no subsidy at all. But with the "free market" Republicans leading and the Democrats meekly following, we encourage dangerous, dirty and terrorist-friendly energy infrastructures (often in the name of security!). That's not to suggest despair; from California to Europe, renewables are emerging as the business and political favorites. But it is to ask, impatiently, how much longer Americans will be expected to overpay for energy — in health costs, environmental damages and misused taxes. The people of America are being overcharged; it's time to ask for a refund.
This article first appeared in The Nation magazine on April 8, 2002.