Over the years, the subsidies doled out to the fossil fuels industry have become numerous, entrenched, and quite complex. Which makes them not only quite difficult to remove for political reasons, but often nearly invisible to the average citizen. In fact, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, there are at least 250 different kinds of subsidies for the fossil fuels industry.
That's a lot. And it should make you wonder why renewable energy has such trouble maintaining even the most modest of tax breaks: The Department of the Treasury’s Section 1603 cash grants program for clean energy projects just expired at the beginning of this year. Meanwhile, of course, the American oil industry alone reaps literally tens of billions of dollars in annual subsidies.
But it's not just the massive yearly tax breaks for Big Oil that comprises the advantage fossil fuels have over renewables–it goes deeper than that. GigaOm has an extensive report on fossil fuel subsidies, which helps to explain: "when an industry has been subsidized for almost a century, as is the case with the fossil fuel industry, the ways in which those companies are supported get numerous and complex. The OECD’s report counted at least 250 mechanisms. Unlike the 1603 Program of the Department of the Treasury for clean power, most subsidies are far more opaque."
And here's Grist's Chris Mims: "And unlike federal subsidies for renewables, which are constantly haggled over in spending bills, a lot of these are sneaky. They include everything from direct subsidies to tax loopholes and government spending on infrastructure on which fossil fuel industries depend. Worse, these subsidies are actually growing from year to year."
All this means that a) fossil fuels have an even more massive advantage over clean energy than is conventionally understood, and b) removing that advantage is going to be a tricky, forebodingly uphill battle. It means that even if for some reason Congress began acting rationally–and the very same conservative politicians who espouse anti-government spending rhetoric everywhere else applied it to the oil industry too, to do away with its generous subsidies–we'd still have a long ways to go.
And not just because of some nefarious, overarching Big Oil agenda; simply because modern society has developed to rely on fossil fuels for so long that our institutions have been built to favor and depend on them. Deals have been cut over the years to help prop up drilling operations, distribution infrastructure, exploration efforts, and so forth. Many such subsidies are specific to states, regions, municipalities. Striking each of those down will take ages, and means disrupting the fossil fuel-centric culture that has persisted for over a century. It means, essentially, that we have a hell of a lot of fossil fuel subsidies to overcome before solar, wind or geothermal will truly get a fair shake.