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Published on November 23rd, 2018 | by Steve Hanley

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Fossil Fuel Companies Kill With Impunity. Why Are Their Leaders Not In Jail?

November 23rd, 2018 by  


Over the course of 2018, I have started emphasizing how the extraction and sale of fossil fuels is like a neighbor who pumps the contents of his septic system onto your front lawn and expects you to pay to clean up his mess. Only under the most absurd economic theory could such antisocial and irresponsible behavior by countenanced by governments.

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If you or I did that, we would be prosecuted as criminals and jailed. Yet when fossil fuel companies do it, they are rewarded with billions of dollars worth of direct and indirect subsidies by state, local, and national governments around the world. Instead of being rewarded, the executives leading these fossil fuel companies should be tried for perpetrating crimes against humanity. Their actions have killed more people than all the horrible dictators the world has ever known, from Josef Stalin to Idi Amin and Augusto Pinochet. Why are these people not in prison?

It seems someone at Bloomberg has been channeling my thoughts. According to the latest e-mail from Bloomberg‘s Climate Changed to arrive in my inbox, opinion columnist Liam Denning today is saying, “Dump your garbage on your neighbor’s lawn and you’ll wind up paying to have it removed and probably a fine, too. Release 20 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning a gallon of gasoline, and it’s a freebie.”

Denning is reacting to the hue and cry that has developed this week over the federal EV tax credit. Big Oil and US automakers have piled on, claiming EV incentives are just a giveaway to the rich and violate core conservative economic values — you know, all that blather about government should not be picking winners and losers in the marketplace. In fact, governments do pick winners and losers and 9 times out of 10 it is fossil fuel companies who are the beneficiaries.

Of course, those companies contribute huge amounts of money to election campaigns, so it comes as no surprise that America has the best governments money can buy — which is great if you are a corporation but not so great if you are a person.

Dennings op-ed piece for Bloomberg is entitled “Big Oil Doesn’t Like EV Subsidies, Just Its Own Giant Subsidy. The lack of a penalty for carbon emissions is the single biggest obstacle to a level playing field.” Spot on, Liam, although it comes as no surprise to CleanTechnica readers.

Denning agrees that the federal tax credit is not the most efficient way to convince people to change their behavior vis a vis carbon emissions. “Addressing climate change means encouraging a switch away from emitting vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in order to power our societies,” he writes. “Leaving aside the unfortunate desire of certain parties to ignore or obfuscate the science framing that threat, the central question is how to encourage that switch most efficiently. In general, handing out regressive subsidies based on the government elevating this or that technology, while perhaps politically more doable, doesn’t meet that objective.

“A far more efficient method is to put a price on the stuff you want less of and then let capitalism do its thing, pushing consumption away from the undesirables and investment toward innovative alternatives. Indeed, all these letters demand government officials stand back and let the market do its thing — except their version of the market leaves out one essential element.” That essential element is that there is no price put on behavior that harms society.

Denning goes on to say, “Using Yale economist and recent Nobel-prize winner William Nordhaus’s $31 per ton estimate of the social cost of carbon, it amounted last year to $107 billion for energy related emissions from oil and natural gas in the U.S. Within that, emissions from transportation — the biggest source in the U.S. and the only one still growing — enjoyed a free ride worth $59 billion.”

Using the numbers flung around by Koch Brothers sponsored advocates, the total cost of the federal EV tax credit since its inception has been about $2 billion. So while the Kochs and their well paid stooges are railing about EV incentives, the industries that sustain them have benefited from government largess to the tune of more than $1 trillion over the past decade. Talk about picking winners and losers in the marketplace!

The US Justice Department under racist-in-chief Jeffery Beauregard Sessions was quick to target illegal activities by black and brown people but showed no interest in the crimes of the fossil fuel companies, which have known about the dangers posed to people and the environment for at least the past 40 years but done nothing about them. (No other attorneys general have had shown much stomach for attacking fossil fuel companies either.) Individually and collectively, they have contributed to millions upon millions of cases of asthma, shortened lifespans, and death, to say nothing of the melting polar ice caps, rising sea level, and extinction of millions of creatures who used to inhabit the Earth but are now found no more.

Back in the last century, many of us used to watch the television series Law & Order. Every other week, assistant district attorney Jack McCoy was arguing that some miscreant or other should be prosecuted for “depraved indifference” — defined by Wikipedia as causing the death of another even if the perpetrator did not explicitly intending to kill. “In a depraved-heart murder, defendants commit an act even though they know their act runs an unusually high risk of causing death or serious bodily harm to a person.” In some states, depraved indifference is treated as second degree murder.

Have you ever heard of the US government pursuing a fossil fuel company on a theory of depraved indifference? No, me either. The bottom line is that the United States has a legal system. What it lacks is a justice system. In America, people — and corporations — get the justice they can afford and no more. With virtually unlimited financial resources, fossil fuel companies can afford a lot of so-called justice while the innocent  continue to suffer from their actions.

This isn’t the first time I have said this, but I still find Elon Musk’s presentation at the Sorbonne in Paris in 2015 to be the best, most logical explanation why putting a price on carbon emissions is critical to addressing a warming planet in any effective way. For those who have not seen it, please watch it. If you have seen it, watch it again. It is well worth your time.


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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island and anywhere else the Singularity may take him. His motto is "Democracy is socialism." You got a problem with that? You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.



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