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COP26 Is Over. When Will Congress Do Its Part and Stop Subsidizing Extinction?

Congress should be leading us toward fossil-free energy instead of subsidizing the industry up to $20 billion per year.

A demonstrator holds a sign which says "Leaders Fiddle While Home Burns" during the protest in London, England, on November 13, 2021.

The diplomatic effort behind COP26 — the United Nations climate conference — failed to meet the scale of the climate emergency. While an agreement was reached to phase out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies, even this was watered down in last-minute negotiations. Too little, too late for frontline communities on the edge of extinction.

Every year, governments throw trillions of public dollars at oil, gas and coal companies. In the past 30 years, just 100 of these companies are responsible for over 70 percent of the emissions causing climate chaos. The shortcomings of COP26 means active citizens must push national governments to end these ridiculous fossil fuel handouts — including in the United States.

Thanks to a web of tax loopholes, credits and deductions, Congress subsidizes the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $20 billion per year.

Some subsidies may have made economic sense in their day: The “intangible drilling costs” deduction, passed in 1913, allows companies to immediately write off the costs of digging for oil.

But not now. Not in this moment of climate disaster. Institutions are rapidly divesting from the sector and even heirs to the oil industry are calling for an end to the industry.

Congress can lead us into a new era of fossil-free energy. For one, the Build Back Better Act, that has now passed the House, would be the U.S. government’s largest investment in climate action.

Unfortunately, the current version of the legislation has some crater-sized holes. There are concerns that it falls short on funding programs that benefit historically marginalized communities, and it does nothing to address intangible drilling costs or other domestic fossil fuel handouts.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration identified some $121 billion over 10 years in subsidies that should be repealed by Congress. Negotiators must include these repeals in the final version of the bill.

Fossil fuels are extremely hazardous for humanity. In 2018, researchers estimated that exposure to fossil fuel emissions accounted for almost 20 percent of total global deaths. This does not even touch on the deaths related to extreme weather or to the political instability that the climate crisis is intensifying.

The climate crisis will affect all of us, but not all of us equally. We are facing a disaster that is hitting marginalized communities, Indigenous groups and people of color harder and sooner.

A quarter of a million Americans live in neighborhoods with dangerous levels of pollution. Many of these in “sacrifice zones” are in the shadow of the U.S. oil industry, which has only expanded through subsidies. As the world’s largest historical carbon emitter with a devastating legacy of environmental injustice, the U.S. has a moral obligation to stop the industry handouts.

Of course, Congress didn’t simply overlook subsidies in the Build Back Better Act. The oil and gas industry has already spent over $80 million on lobbying in 2021. Proposed repeals threaten Washington’s fossil fuel-friendly status quo and many companies are already lobbying to protect their tax breaks.

From Washington to Glasgow, host of the recent UN climate change conference (COP26), industry lobbyists are “flooding the zone.” Fossil fuel company representatives at COP26 outnumbered the largest country delegation and were twice the size of the official UN constituency for Indigenous people.

Without question, the fossil fuel industry is holding up action in Congress on subsidies. Democratic Party leaders are caving to corporate interests and moderate Democrats claim to be worried about unfair targeting of the industry — which is ironic, given how heavily the subsidies have favored it up until now.

All of this despite the fact that voters in both parties support ending these handouts.

Keeping those “intangible drilling costs” and other handouts alive is a priority for Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia — a fact revealed in a leaked memo this summer. This is not particularly surprising. Manchin has taken almost $600,000 from the oil and gas industry in 2021 alone — hundreds of thousands more than any of his colleagues in the U.S. Senate.

Fittingly, the state fossil of West Virginia is a giant sloth. Its slow movements reflect what climate scientist Michael Mann calls the industry’s new approach of “climate inactivism.” Its guiding principles: delay, deflect, disinform, do almost anything to keep emissions going and subsidies flowing.

Congress is taking meaningful steps to build back fossil-free, including allocating billions of dollars for clean energy development in Build Back Better. But funding innovation alone is not sufficient to stave off extinction: We must put an end to extraction, too. This starts with stopping the subsidies and reclaiming public funds to address climate impacts and historical environmental injustices.

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