Why Nobody Takes Ending Oil Subsidies Seriously

Clinton Steed/CC BY 2.0

Why the media shrugs when the anti-government spending GOP votes to protect government spending on Big Oil.
Few people feel that oil companies should continue to receive billions of dollars of subsidies; the fact that the industry receives a steady stream of taxpayer dollars is unpopular with the American electorate. But every time an effort is made to remove them—an effort some Democrats, including the president, understandably attempt to infuse with some degree of pomp—the effort fails.

Republicans and oil-state Democrats rush to the defense of oil industry handouts so readily, so routinely that it has become conventional wisdom inside the beltway and in the mainstream media that any move to kill them is merely political theater. The NY Times ran a post headlined "GOP Calls Democrats' Bluff on Oil Subsidies Bill" when Republicans allow it to come to the floor.

As such, the lion's share of the press coverage around an event like Obama's Rose Garden speech today, in which he called for the passage of the subsidy-killing bill, and the bill itself, which failed shortly after, focuses solely on the horse race optics:

Does saying we should end oil subsidies play well with voters? Was it a smart political move?

As is routinely the case with the modern mainstream media apparatus, we receive precious little investigation as to whether reducing the flow of taxpayer dollars to the likes of Exxon and Chevron would actually be a good idea. Instead, we're tacitly led to continue operating on the premise that handouts to oil companies won't ever be stricken down in the foreseeable future, as if they are cemented in the bedrock of our politics.

And to some degree, at the moment, they are: Given the degree of influence that powerful corporations now openly wield over the political process, it is well understood that the wealthiest and most powerful of those corporations will be bowed to by politicians seeking their favor. Why else, after all, would a bloc of vehemently anti-government spending politicians continue to passionately advocate for more government spending on oil companies?

But this bold-faced hypocrisy is to be expected, or so media assumes; it is completely unremarkable that Republicans should curry favor to oil companies. Republicans and Big Oil are on the same team, see—of course they have the same horse in the race. But you'd be hard pressed to find a mainstream reporter point out any inherent ideological disparity in Republicans' unwavering willingness to direct government funds to oil companies, while, sometimes simultaneously, heaping scorn on clean energy subsidies.

And sure, reporters can argue that based on the previous statements and positions of the senators, a particular bill may be doomed to fail. But when Republicans propose to expand offshore drilling, for example, it is not dismissed outright as flagrant posturing. And never mind the economists, environmentalists, and experts who, relegated to the back of the room, argue in favor of ending the subsidies, or say they'd have little impact on the American consumer.

An air of inevitability surrounds the oil subsidy 'debate' that is absent from motions to expand drilling or to relax environmental regulations. And it seems pretty clear that, directly or indirectly, it's thanks primarily to the immensity of capital backing one side of these arguments.

It is the result of a systemic problem that lets money talk too loudly in our politics—and it's talking loudly enough to warp the accompanying public debate as well.

Tags: Oil

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