This challenging book examines the role of guns in the civil rights movement.
Dave GilsonJun. 7, 2014 6:00 AM
This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed
By Charles E. Cobb Jr.
In this challenging book, Charles Cobb, a former organizer, examines the role of guns in the civil rights movement. Looking beyond the conventional narrative ("Rosa sat down, Martin stood up…"), he finds that the nonviolent struggle against Jim Crow was often backstopped by armed supporters keeping the threat of white violence at bay. The title paraphrases a Mississippi farmer's admonition to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who turned the other cheek in public while keeping guns at his home after it was bombed. Cobb's thesis may thrill Second Amendment enthusiasts, but he argues that truly standing your ground means scaring off white thugs in hoods—not gunning down a black teen in a hoodie.
You know a Roz Chast character when you see one: a person, often on a sofa, whose bemused, slightly off-kilter expression suggests some deeper angst or anger. The longtime New Yorker cartoonist's new memoir, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, introduces two real-life characters: her parents, George and Elizabeth, a sweet motormouth who "chain-worried the way others might chain-smoke" and an outspoken assistant principal known for her furious "blasts from Chast." The book chronicles their reluctant slide into extreme old age, which left Chast, now 59, to sift through decades of emotional baggage and mountains of stuff—like their junk-crammed "Crazy Closet." Her poignant, funny story will resonate with anyone who's experienced the roller coaster of an elderly relative's final years.
Mother Jones: As a child you felt your parents had their own thing going and you were kind of in the way. When did you come to that realization?
Roz Chast: Probably pretty young. I was an only child, and they worked. They'd been together for a very long time before I was born. They were very connected to each other. They were older—chronologically and in a lot of other ways—than my friends' parents. I never saw my father wear any kind of pants except for, like, man pants, those gray slacks. Forget jeans. Not even corduroys or khakis. When we'd go to the beach, they'd be wearing their street clothes. They weren't very casual.
A Roz Chast cartoon that appeared in Mother Jones in December 1984 Roz Chast/Mother Jones
MJ: How have your views on aging changed as a result of caring for them?
RC: It's definitely made me think a lot more about it. Recently I was visiting my son and we went to this huge indoor flea market. At first it was like, This is great, this is wonderful. And then within a few minutes, I just looked around and felt like, I just threw away all this shit. This is all dead-people stuff, crap that people got rid of that was maybe in their old apartment or in their parents house or whatever. Do I want this cute little alarm clock from 1962? Not really. So I just have a different feeling about stuff. And as I get older, it's not likely to completely go away. I could be wrong. I could decide to suddenly collect cute alarm clocks.
MJ: So you don't have a Crazy Closet?
RC: Every drawer is like a mini-Crazy Closet. I'm just hoping it doesn't get that bad. I didn't go through the Depression like my parents did.
MJ: Were they unable to throw stuff away as a result?
"It was borderline hoarding. They just shoved things in the closet."
RC: Oh yeah! You didn't throw away jar lids or Band-Aid boxes. There was a drawer of those amber plastic vials, what pills come in—you might need them for, I don't know, three cotton balls or something. It was borderline hoarding. They didn't throw away old clothes. They just shoved things in the closet so everything was pressed. I think I must have been the only person who really understood why Joan Crawford was so upset about the wire hangers. It was just like, She's right! She's right!
MJ: Your mom was adamant that she and your dad were "going to 100" together. Do you share that determination?
RC: I really don't. On the other hand, how would I know what it feels like to be that age any more than a person who's 25 can understand what it feels like to be 50?
MJ: Your title refers to your parents' reluctance to talk about aging or dying.
RC: I think it's pretty representative of our world, our culture. We don't really talk about it. You just take old people and you put them in a place, and I hope that doesn't happen to me, but it's not like I'm actively doing anything to prevent that—which is weird.
MJ: It's hard to know what the alternatives are, though. You talk, tongue in cheek but also seriously, about how your final years could be made happier: Why not eat all the ice cream you want or take opium or even have hemlock as an option?
RC: I'd rather take opium than hemlock. I sometimes think, once you're lying there, why not do something that might be fun?
A Roz Chast cartoon that appeared in Mother Jones in May 1988 Roz Chast/Mother Jones
MJ: At what age did you realize you wanted to be a cartoonist?
RC: I used to love to draw things that made me laugh or made friends laugh. When I was 13 or 14, I started thinking, This is what I like to do more than anything else.
MJ: Your work often has people sitting on living-room sofas. In your book, even Death sits on one. Do sofas hold some sort of significance for you?
RC: I just like drawing them.
MJ: The New Yorker is notorious for its weekly cartoon pitch process. What's your hit-to-miss ratio?
RC: It goes in streaks. I could not sell for three weeks and then sell three weeks in a row and then not sell for two weeks and then sell for one. Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor, talked once about this experiment with rats and pellets. The rats that pushed down the lever and got a pellet every time would eventually get bored, and the rats that never got any pellets would eventually stop pushing. But where it was random, where they'd push down the lever and get three pellets, and then three pushes and no pellets, and then a push and two pellets—they'd keep on pushing forever. I think about that a lot. I think that cartoonists are the rats with the levers.
The filmmaker talks about his latest work, "The Address," and a few of the 150 other documentary ideas he's working on.
Dave GilsonApr. 14, 2014 6:00 AM
Since it was founded in 1978, the Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont, has required its students to memorize and publicly recite the Gettysburg Address every year. In his new film, The Address, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns follows the students at this small, all-boys school as they grapple with internalizing Abraham Lincoln's two-minute speech. The twist: All the kids have learning disabilities, including speech and language deficits, that make their struggles and—spoiler alert—triumphs all the more poignant.
Think of it as Ken Burns' Spellbound. The 90-minute film, culled from three months of footage of classes, dorm life, and kids goofing off, is not a typical Burns project. Though, he explains, "You'll know it's a Ken Burns film: It has all the old photographs, it has the 'Battle Cry of Freedom' playing, but it's something different." Instead of enlisting actors, Burns got students at the school to narrate the film, speech impairments and all. "It's not full-on cinema verité," he says. "But for 320 hours of footage reduced to an hour and a half, it's cinema verité!"
Making the film inspired Burns' side project, Learn the Address, which is encouraging as many people as possible to learn Lincoln's words by heart. So far, the project has collected hundreds of videos from everyday and celebrity orators.
There will be subsidies: Nine decades later, "perhaps the most glaring loophole" in the tax code is still going strong.
Andy Kroll, Dave Gilson, Benjy Hansen-Bundy, and Alex ParkApr. 14, 2014 6:00 AM
Oil derricks and a "lake" of spilled crude in Santa Barbara, California, in 1935.
Over the past century, the federal government has pumped more than $470 billion into the oil and gas industry in the form of generous, never-expiring tax breaks. How it all got started:
The petroleum industry takes off as Americans' love affair with the automobile begins. A new tax provision allows oil companies to write off dry holes as well as all "intangible drilling costs" in their first year of exploration. Over the next 15 years, oil and gas subsidies will average $1.9 billion a year in today's dollars.
Congress approves the "depletion allowance," which lets oil producers deduct more than a quarter of their gross revenues. Texas Sen. Tom Connally, who sponsored the break, later admits, "We could have taken a 5 or 10 percent figure, but we grabbed 27.5 percent because we were not only hogs but the odd figure made it appear as though it was scientifically arrived at."
Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau calls the depletion allowance "perhaps the most glaring loophole" in the tax code. President Franklin D. Roosevelt urges Congress to close it and other tax-evasion methods "so widespread and so amazing, both in their boldness and their ingenuity, that further action without delay seems imperative."
Natural gas drillers in Kansas first experiment with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, but the technology won't be widely used until the federal government backs its development in the 1970s.
President Harry S. Truman unsuccessfully prods Congress to end the depletion allowance.
Asked about the depletion allowance, President Dwight Eisenhower replies, "I am not prepared to say it is evil because, while we do find, I assume, that a number of rich men take advantage of it unfairly, there must certainly be an incentive in this country if we are going to continue the exploration for gas and oil that is so important to our economy."
Presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debate the depletion allowance. Kennedy says he's willing to review and close the "loophole." Nixon counters, "I favor the present depletion allowance. I favor it not because I want to make a lot of oilmen rich, but because I want to make America rich."
Congress cuts the depletion allowance deduction from 27.5 to 23 percent, over the objections of the president of Gulf Oil, who calls it "a cornerstone, a major part of the foundation on which the industry has built its house. To dismantle it in whole or in part could very well jeopardize that whole structure and, to a serious degree, the economy dependent upon it." President Nixon says the tax break is "in the national interest" because Mideast oil supplies could be cut off "in the event of a world conflict."
With the OPEC oil embargo and energy crisis at full tilt, Nixon vows to do "everything in my power to prevent the big oil companies and other major energy producers from making an unconscionable profit out of this crisis."
President Gerald Ford authorizes the creation of the Energy Research and Development Administration to oversee energy R&D. Over the next five years, federal spending on fossil fuel research jumps tenfold to $1.4 billion.
Ford almost vetoes but then signs a tax bill that repeals the depletion allowance for large companies. It remains in place for smaller, independent drillers.
The Department of Energy oversees the first successful applications of large-scale fracking to extract oil and gas.
President Jimmy Carter praises Sen. Russell Long of oil-rich Louisiana for voting "to do away with the oil depletion allowance, which was a very courageous thing to do."
Carter signs a "gas guzzler" tax on new cars that don't meet federal mileage standards.
Carter signs a $228 billion tax on oil companies' windfall profits as well as a tax credit to encourage the development of shale and tar oil, coalbed methane, and other unconventional fossil fuels.
President Reagan takes aim at federal tax breaks. Oil and gas is one of few industries to emerge unscathed from the "showdown at Gucci Gulch." He fails to convince Congress to kill the depletion allowance for most oil wells.
As oil prices sink, Congress repeals the windfall profits tax.
A bill signed by President George H.W. Bush doubles the gas guzzler tax and increases gasoline excise taxes. It also establishes a new tax credit for retrofitting existing oil wells to boost production, expands the tax credit for unconventional oil production, and loosens the depletion allowance.
The Energy Policy Act establishes tax credits for renewable energy production and introduces tax deductions for cars powered by electricity and alternative fuels.
President Bill Clinton signs the Deep Water Royalty Relief Act, letting oil companies drill in federal waters without paying any royalties. More than 1,000 leases omit a promised price trigger, costing billions.
Clinton extends the loosened rules for the depletion allowance.
The American Jobs Creation Act extends a tax break to oil companies for not shipping domestic jobs overseas.
With oil prices on the rise, President George W. Bush states, "With $55 [a barrel] oil, we don't need incentives to oil and gas companies to explore." But a few months later, he signs the Energy Policy Act, which expands the depletion allowance to apply to more drillers. It also lets companies write off exploration costs over two years instead of one.
Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) introduces the Oil Subsidy Elimination Act, which could end many of Big Oil's most lucrative tax breaks. It never gets out of committee.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama introduces the Oil sense (Subsidy Elimination for New Strategies on Energy) Act, which would repeal the depletion allowance and suspend royalty-free leases in the Gulf of Mexico. The bill dies in the Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee. A House bill that would have expanded tax credits for renewable energy and energy conservation also dies.
Annual tax subsidies for renewable energy shoot past those for oil and gas.
President Obama's stimulus package includes $90 billion for energy efficiency and renewable-energy projects, including wind and solar electricity generation, fuel cells, and electric vehicles.
The Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan proposes modifying or eliminating all tax expenditures and raising the gas tax by 15 cents. Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan likewise suggests that "oil and gas depletion allowances could be restructured" as direct subsidies.
House Speaker John Boehner tells abc News, "I don't think the big oil companies need to have the oil depletion allowances." Asked if oil subsidies should be cut, he answers, "They ought to be paying their fair share." His spokesman clarifies: "The Speaker made clear in the interview that raising taxes was a non-starter, and he's told the president that. He simply wasn't going to take the bait and fall into the trap of defending 'Big Oil' companies."
Executives of the big five oil companies testify before Congress about their tax breaks. In their defense, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) calls the hearing "a dog and pony show" and displays a photograph of a dog sitting on a pony.
A national survey finds that 7 in 10 Americans (including nearly 7 in 10 Republicans) oppose fossil fuel subsidies.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) introduces the Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act, which would end $2.4 billion in tax breaks for the big five oil companies. Obama challenges Congress to "eliminate this oil industry giveaway right away." Unable to get filibuster-proof support, it dies.
Mitt Romney says oil subsidies go "largely to small companies, to drilling operators and so forth." He says he'd consider cutting them—if tax rates were slashed first.
The American Petroleum Institute launches a $3 million postelection media blitz, including ads that warn seven Democratic senators up for reelection in 2014 against touching the industry's tax breaks: "American energy—not higher taxes on energy—will create jobs."
Despite talk of everything being "on the table," oil's tax perks survive the fiscal-cliff negotiations.
Congressional Democrats introduce five bills targeting tax giveaways for oil and gas companies. Their death is all but assured, especially in the Republican-controlled House.
In April, Obama introduces his 2014 budget, which includes $23 billion for renewable energy and energy efficiency over 10 years and permanent tax cuts for renewable power generation. It also would end "inefficient fossil fuel subsidies." In contrast, the gop budget proposed by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan targets "federal intervention and corporate-welfare spending" by cutting subsidies for renewables. Tax breaks for oil are left untouched.
Over the past century, the federal government has pumped more than $470 billion into the oil and gas industry in the form of generous, never-expiring tax breaks. Once intended to jump-start struggling domestic drillers, these incentives have become a tidy bonus for some of the world's most profitable companies.
Taxpayers currently subsidize the oil industry by as much as $4.8 billion a year, with about half of that going to the big five oil companies—ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips—which get an average tax break of $3.34 on every barrel of domestic crude they produce. With Washington looking under the couch cushions for sources of new revenue, oil prices topping $100 a barrel, and the world feeling the heat from its dependence on fossil fuels, there's been a renewed push to close these decades-old loopholes. But history suggests that Big Oil won't let go of its perks without a brawl.
There Will Be Subsidies
How the oil companies hit a gusher of tax breaks
Writing Off Drilling Expenses: A century ago, drilling for oil was risky business. Start-up costs were high, and prospectors couldn't be sure they'd find crude. To encourage the nascent industry, in 1916 Congress approved the expensing of "intangible drilling costs"—pretty much any equipment used or work done—in the first year of a well's life. Today, prospectors rarely hit dry holes, but the century-old tax break remains a gusher. Oil companies can expense 70 percent of their drilling costs and depreciate the rest. Annual cost to taxpayers: $700 million to $3.5 billion
The Depletion Allowance: When you sunk a well 90 years ago, you didn't know how much it would yield or for how long. That was the idea when oil producers argued that the tax code should account for the "depletion" of their reserves. In 1926, Congress introduced the "excess of percentage over cost depletion deferral," a.k.a. the depletion allowance. Since 1975, only small companies may claim it, but the price tag is still big. Under the allowance, an oil producer may deduct 15 percent (originally 27.5 percent) of any gross income from a well. And unlike normal depreciation, this deduction may be claimed indefinitely. Annual cost to taxpayers: $612 million to $1.1 billion
Domestic Manufacturing Deduction: In 2004, ostensibly to prevent jobs from being shipped overseas, Congress extended a tax break for stateside manufacturers to cover the oil industry. Never mind that most US oil jobs are nearly outsourcing-proof, since a well in Alaska or a refinery in Louisiana can't be sent to China. Annual cost to taxpayers: $574 million
Why Washington won't touch oil subsidies, Part One
Oil and gas companies and their employees have pumped more than $357 million into federal candidates' campaigns since 1990, with $4 out of every $5 going to Republicans. And that's nothing compared to what they've spent on lobbying: more than $1.4 billion in the past 15 years. Last year, the industry employed 796 lobbyists, nearly 60 percent of them ex-members of Congress and staffers who'd come through the revolving door from Capitol Hill.
"It's a pretty damn good investment," says Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has tried to end the industry's perks. Outside groups, some with oil industry connections, spent $23.5 million to defeat him in 2012. "If you're thinking about taking on oil companies, be ready for that kind of onslaught," he says.
Stepping on Big Oil's toes has always been risky, but in the post-Citizens United era, oil and gas executives can pour unlimited money (sometimes anonymously) into races. In 2012, Chevron gave $2.5 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC devoted to expanding the Republican majority in the House. And oil-backed dark-money groups like the American Petroleum Institute, the American Energy Alliance, and the Chamber of Commerce spent tens of millions on ads attacking President Obama's energy policies.
This makes many lawmakers wary of crossing Big Oil, explains a senior aide to another Democratic senator. "We have a lot of members who are willing to vote the right way, but they're not out there fighting the fight on this," he says. "Do you really want to stick your neck out and attract enormous amounts of money?"
Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean in Giant Giant Productions/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS.com
Facing Marginal tax rates of more than 90 percent, some Hollywood stars of the '40s and '50s sought shelter in oil. A 1959 newspaper article explained their tax scheme:
Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope take their salary and invest it immediately in oil. If oil is hit, cost of drilling is deducted and 27.5 percent depletion is taken off the top with no taxes. If the well is dry, cost of drilling is deducted before taxes. This is called "drilling with tax money."
In the 1956 petro-epic Giant, the depletion allowance is described as "the best thing to hit Texas since we whupped Geronimo," prompting Elizabeth Taylor to quip, "How about an exemption for depreciation of first-class brains, Senator?" Screenwriter Ivan Moffat said that "oil interests" pressured studio head Jack Warner to kill Taylor's line.
Testifying against high tax rates before Congress in 1958, Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan noted the similarity between actors and oil wells: "We feel we are about as short-lived as an oil well and twice as pretty." Yet, he added, "we have no depletion allowance to compensate for the diminishing market value." When Reagan recut the federal tax code three decades later, oil's tax loopholes stayed in the picture.
Gassy Knoll Theory
Did Texas Oilmen kill JFK over oil subsidies?!
John F. Kennedy made noises about ending the depletion allowance during his 1960 presidential campaign, much to the consternation of his running mate, Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson. When an LBJ staffer handed Bobby Kennedy a neutral-sounding statement on the tax break for his big brother to read, Bobby literally tore it to shreds. Jack Kennedy was assassinated before he could take action, prompting some conspiracy theorists to contend that he was offed to protect Johnson's petroleum constituency. Longtime Republican operative Roger Stone advances this notion in his recent book, The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ. "That was the difference between Lyndon and me. I wasn't willing to kill for it," Stone claims his mentor Richard Nixon told him over martinis. (All evidence suggests that President Gerald Ford, who oversaw the end of the depletion allowance for big oil companies in 1975, died from natural causes.)
"Presidents Come and Go"
Why Washington won't touch oil subsidies, Part Two
The oil and gas industry insists that it doesn't receive any government handouts. Technically, it's got a point: Its favorite giveaways are tax expenditures buried in the tax code. So the government isn't actually giving oil companies much money—it's just losing money it otherwise could be collecting from them.
To protect these tax breaks, the oil industry doesn't have to convince lawmakers to do something; it has to convince them to do nothing. As a Republican senatorial aide explains, "Once you get it in the code, it is really, really hard to change." Besides, few politicians want to untangle the wonkiness of decades-old tax loopholes. "When you get into the weeds with it, it's tax policy," says Autumn Hanna, an analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Who's excited and interested in tax policy?"
Industry officials, environmentalists, and reps from both parties say the best shot at curbing the tax breaks is to tackle the entire tax structure. Within the industry, former Shell head John Hofmeister says, the thinking goes like this: "Let's do comprehensive tax reform, and if these incentives disappear during the course of that discussion, okay." Lowering corporate taxes could easily compensate for the loss of the current tax breaks. And if a tax overhaul never gets off the ground, the oil industry will be content with the status quo. As former Exxon CEO Lee Raymond once said, "Presidents come and go; Exxon doesn't come and go."
Texas Hold 'Em
Seven Lone Star State politicians who gave the oil industry full service
Lyndon Johnson: In 1949, Johnson, then a junior senator, accused Federal Power Commission head Leland Olds of being a communist and torpedoed his reconfirmation. Olds' crime: He'd testified against the deregulation of the oil industry. As president, LBJ held off any discussion of tweaking oil subsidies.
Sam Rayburn: The long-serving Democratic speaker of the House blocked any prospective member of the Ways and Means Committee who wanted to trim or eliminate the depletion allowance. He once convinced oilmen to make a large campaign donation by warning them that congressional Republicans would "tear your depletion allowance and intangible-drilling write-offs to pieces."
George H.W. Bush: After President Nixon signaled that he wanted to end oil import quotas, Bush, then a House freshman, met with industry leaders and Treasury Secretary David Kennedy. Kennedy changed Nixon's mind, prompting Bush to write to the secretary: "I was so appreciative of your telling them [the industry reps] how I bled and died for the oil industry. That might kill me off in the Washington Post but it darn sure helps in Houston."
James A. Baker III: As the Reagan White House shot down tax loopholes during the "showdown at Gucci Gulch," Treasury Secretary James Baker drew fire away from the oil industry. The final cuts, the Wall Street Journal's Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray wrote, were "a very mild swipe, designed only to enable Baker to say publicly that no special interest was spared the tax-reform knife."
Under the dome: LBJ and Rep. Sam Rayburn Bettmann/Corbis
Lloyd Bentsen: The day after he finished crafting the 1986 tax reform bill, then-Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) got a call from Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. Bentsen said he and seven senators would block the massive bill unless Packwood kept a special tax break for oil and gas companies. Packwood relented and the bill sailed through.
Joe Barton: Barton, the climate-change-denying representative who famously apologized to BP after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, defended the tax incentives for big oil companies in 2011, arguing that "they'll go out of business" without them.
As crude prices dipped in 1995, the oil industry cried poverty. A sympathetic President Bill Clinton signed the Deep Water Royalty Relief Act, a five-year deal where companies could drill in US waters without paying any royalties. If oil prices rose, royalties would kick in.
Yet the Interior Department didn't include the price trigger on more than 1,000 leases in the Gulf of Mexico. The bungled deals weren't disclosed until several years later. In a series of testy hearings, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) grilled agency lawyers on what went wrong; clerical error was their best answer. The leases amounted to a de facto subsidy of as much as $14.7 billion. In 2007, a federal court in Louisiana challenged Interior's ability to impose price triggers on any deepwater leases signed under the act, potentially depriving the government of $38 billion in future royalties. The Justice Department has appealed, and the case slogs on.
So What About Solyndra?
Yes, renewable energy now gets more federal money than oil and gas. But don't feel bad for the oilmen just yet.
THE SOLYNDRA SCANDAL was just the most recent flare-up in a growing controversy over subsidies for renewable energy, with fossil fuel fans taking aim at taxpayer help for solar and wind startups. "It is not the role of government to pick winners and losers," Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) griped about the failed solar company that left taxpayers on the hook for a $535 million loan.
It's true that the renewable-energy industry currently snags a bigger chunk of the subsidy pie—$7.3 billion a year, compared to $4.8 billion for oil. (Plus, renewables received another $6.2 billion in direct subsidies, research and development funding, loan guarantees, and other help in 2010; fossil fuels got just 2 percent of that.) The difference is that renewables are at the stage where oil was a century ago: a promising yet not fully developed technology that needs a government boost to come to scale. That's what motivated the original tax giveaways to what would become Big Oil.
Oil subsidies haven't gone away as the industry has matured because they are locked into the tax code. However, the more recent incentives for renewables expire every few years, forcing producers to scramble for support on Capitol Hill and injecting uncertainty into the market. Two of the biggest breaks for renewables expire at the end of 2013 and 2016. An investment credit for advanced energy research is capped at $300 million.
And the renewables industry is still playing catch-up. An analysis by DBL Investors found that the early subsidies for oil and gas development dwarfed those given to renewables in the past two decades. Subsidizing promising new sources of energy, the report's authors write, is as "American as apple pie."
What Else Could $4.8 Billion Buy?
THE $4.8 BILLION in tax breaks that go to oil companies annually are a drop in the barrel for them, but it could go a long way toward spurring the clean-energy economy. Some other things we could do with it:
Guarantee loans for renewable-energy projects that could generate $24 billion in private-sector investment and as much as $475 billion in economic activity.
Increase doe spending on developing solar technology by more than 1,500 percent. Increase spending on fuel cell research by 4,500 percent.
Install between 1,200 and 1,600 two-megawatt wind turbines, enough to power 620,000 homes.
Quintuple the Army Corps of Engineers' budget for flood and storm damage reduction and shore protection—needed to cope with threats from climate change.
Your Taxes Funded the Fracking Boom
A North Dakota oil rig Associated Press
Not all oil subsidies date back to the early years of the 20th century. The industry is also reaping massive benefits from the federal money that set off the explosion of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial technology used to squeeze gas and oil from shale deposits.
In the 1970s, Presidents Nixon and Ford launched an urgent effort to boost domestic oil and gas production. In 1977, the Department of Energy oversaw the first large-scale demonstration of hydraulic fracturing to produce shale gas; it also funded the development of new drilling techniques for reaching these previously hard-to-tap deposits. According to an investigation by the Breakthrough Institute, over the next two decades the feds spent $137 million on key research that led to the $283-billion-a-year gas boom. Thanks to this taxpayer-backed investment, notes the group, "shale gas went from inaccessible deposits locked in unfamiliar geologic formations to the fastest growing contributor to the nation's energy portfolio."
"As far as shale is concerned, I don't know that industry would ever have taken a look at it without the federal program," Alex Crawley, former associate director for research at the National Petroleum Technology Office, told Breakthrough. It didn't happen overnight, explained Terry Engelder, a Penn State University geosciences professor and an expert on shale gas. "This really took 20 to 30 to 40 years before it really worked. In terms of solar, it's going to be the same."
Capping the Well
What would happen if the oil industry's subsidies dried up?
If tax breaks for oil companies were cut off, the industry and its allies warn, gas prices would soar, domestic oil production would tank, and the entire economy would take a hit. When Democrats targeted the subsidies for oil in 2011, Continental Resources CEO and Mitt Romney megadonor Harold Hamm said it would kill "thousands of American jobs." Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell declared, "Raising taxes on American energy production will increase the price of gas. Oh, and it would also make us even more dependent on foreign sources of oil."
The data suggests otherwise. Research by economist Stephen Brown found that the average American consumer would spend an extra 60 cents a year on petroleum products if Congress eliminated the oil industry's main tax perks. Even an American Petroleum Institute tax expert has said that ending tax breaks "would not affect the global economics underpinning oil supply and demand, which explain today's gasoline prices." Alan Krueger, the Treasury Department's chief economist, told Congress in 2009 that cutting oil and gas subsidies would shrink domestic production by less than 0.5 percent and wouldn't significantly change how much we import. The oil companies' costs would increase 2 percent and some jobs would be lost, but the industry would be more efficient in the long run.
And there's an added benefit from killing aid to oil companies: protecting the planet. According to the International Energy Agency, governments worldwide spent $523 billion subsidizing fossil fuel consumption in 2011. Ending that spending would cut global CO2 emissions nearly 6 percent by 2035. And it would free up money for addressing the environmental costs of fossil fuels, mitigate the effects of climate change, and remove what the IEA calls a "hand brake" slowing the development of clean energy.