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Stop the gravy train and level the playing field between fossil fuels and renewables

Stefanie Spear  |  02/03/11 @ 11:47am

Millions of us heard President Barack Obama during his State of the Union address last month say, "We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's."Makes sense, but how do you reverse more than sixty years of bad policy that pours more than $10 billion annually into subsidies to the oil, gas and coal industries?  For starters, we can focus on the impact it would have on reducing the deficit-something all party lines can stand behind.  Second, as more Americans come to realize that their tax dollars support polluting industries that are reporting record profits, proliferate climate change and put a false price tag on their energy usage, they will demand accountability and support policy makers that will right the wrong. In a compelling article, Get the Energy Sector Off the Dole, in the Washington Monthly, Jeffrey Leonard suggests that eliminating all government energy subsidies and tax credits for non-renewable and renewable energy sources will level the playing field and allow the free market to drive new energy technologies.  According to the article, about 70 percent of all federal energy subsidies goes toward oil, natural gas and coal, 15 percent to ethanol, 10 percent to large hydro-power and 5 percent to renewables.  Eliminating all subsidies will help make wind, solar and other green energy cost competitive.As a solar and wind distributed generation developer in Ohio, I am constantly up against the uncertainty of incentives on the state and federal level, varying zoning regulations, lack of a streamlined process for grant applications including compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, conflicting issues regarding "Buy American" mandates, NIMBY issues and the lack of a federal energy policy.  You certainly don't need a crystal ball to know that the passage of a national renewable electricity standard, mandating a certain percentage of electricity from renewable sources, or a carbon tax is years away, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency getting the go ahead from Congress to regulate carbon dioxide emissions is a long shot.So what is the answer to our ever-growing energy crisis?  Of course, energy efficiency is essential to slowing the energy demand growth so renewable energy can make deeper cuts in fossil fuel use.  Smart metering will help reduce base-load needs.  Advances in battery storage will help manage problems associated with intermittency of solar and wind.  Funding innovation, and research and development, as Obama suggests in his annual address, is essential. More efficient cars and high-speed rail will reduce our dependency on foreign oil.  But what will truly transition our country to relying on cleaner sources of fuel?Oil Change International (http://priceofoil.org), an organization that exposes the true costs of fossil fuels and facilitates the coming transition towards clean energy, states that the greatest barriers to clean energy are political, not technical-and these barriers are largely fueled by the oil industry.  In order to achieve a clean energy future, we have to expose and eradicate the political influence of the oil industry.So what will the next two years bring?  Will we truly stop subsidizing yesterday's energy, and invest in tomorrow's?  Or, will we continue to be the world's largest consumer of energy with no sustainable energy plan to follow?------------Stefanie Penn Spear, founder and executive director of EcoWatch (www.ecowatch.org) and president of Expedite Renewable Energy (www.expediterenewableenergy.com), has been working on environmental issues for more than 20 years.  Follow Spear on Twitter at twitter.com/StefanieSpear. EcoWatch is an Ohio-based nonprofit dedicated to providing a voice for grassroots environmental organizations and activists working to better our planet.  Expedite Renewable Energy develops solar and wind projects in Ohio.

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