I remember one Halloween night when I was probably about 5 years old and dressed as Raggedy Ann. I was on my way up to one of those very popular, well-decorated houses with a short driveway and good candy. I put my little plastic pumpkin down by the front steps, did the trick-or-treat thing, and came back to find all the candy I had painstakingly collected from my neighbors was gone. The culprit was some high school bully who took advantage of my unattended basket to fill his own gigantic candy sack. Lucky for me, my overprotective dad watched him do it and shook that bully down for every last Tootsie Roll.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve watched in horror as the oil and gas industry did exactly the same thing as that Halloween bully (except way, way worse, because we’re not just talking about some little sweets).
On July 6, the Small Business Administration released data revealing that more than $3 billion dollars of coronavirus aid went to fossil fuel companies, funding activities from oil and gas drilling and coal mining to pipeline construction. Then, mere weeks later, we learned that governments of wealthy nations around the world are consistently pouring more COVID-19 recovery funds into fossil fuels than into clean and renewable energy technologies. As we Southerners say when something is just infuriatingly unreasonable, that doesn’t make a lick of sense!
To be clear, this isn’t totally new. The fossil fuel industry has gotten the vast majority of the candy for decades — to the tune of about $20 billion per year in the United States. An International Monetary Fund (IMF) study found that America was the second-largest subsidizer of fossil fuels in the world and spent ten times more on propping up the industry than on education in 2015. The fossil fuel industry has also been hard at work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, lobbying more actively than any other interest group for bailout money and special treatment.
Nevertheless, there are a few reasons why our federal government’s recent decision to funnel recovery money into the hands of the fossil fuel industry makes me as mad as a dad watching their kid’s candy get stolen. First, the fossil fuel industry truly is the big bad bully. Oil and gas companies already have so much money and influence in our politics and adding to their outsized power is just about the last thing I want to see my tax dollars going toward. Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, in particular, which were established by the CARES Act in March with the express purpose of helping small businesses keep workers on their payrolls, shouldn’t be going to an industry that is already stuffing its pockets with billions in profits each year.
Recovery dollars spent on the fossil fuel industry are also just bad investments. Coal, oil and gas companies were already experiencing financial distress well before the pandemic, in part because of the affordability and popularity of cleaner alternatives. And that trend is showing no signs of reversing. Major utility companies have been turning away from pipeline projects and other fossil fuel infrastructure and toward renewable options like solar and wind instead. So why keep throwing money at an industry that, for good reason, was already on its way out?
That brings me to the most important reason of all not to waste recovery dollars on propping up fossil fuels. Long before COVID-19 entered our everyday lexicon, we’ve known exactly what direction we need to be moving in to secure a better, healthier future. We’ve known for decades that fossil fuels are not only the primary source of global warming pollution that threatens the stability of our climate, but also endanger our health and environment from the moment we dig them out of the ground. We also know that fossil fuel-linked air pollution can lead to numerous health problems and makes us more vulnerable to infectious diseases, including COVID-19. The novel coronavirus pandemic has reminded us just how crucial clean air and wild places are to our health and happiness, too, as we look to limit time spent in shared indoor spaces. Transitioning away from the energy sources that threaten those necessities must continue to be a top priority.
Recovery funds are supposed to do exactly what their name implies — help the world recover. We have a rare opportunity right now, as we’re making big investments in the fabric of our society, to be intentional about what we choose to prioritize. Our ability to dole out recovery candy is limited, so rather than letting a single additional treat go to bullies and polluters, we should be making sure that every recovery dollar we spend serves to build the future we actually need. That future will be powered by clean renewable energy, not fossil fuels — and we cannot waste time in making that transition.