Environmentalists took a beating this year on their top issue, the fight to tax carbon emissions so that polluters would have a powerful new economic incentive to clean up their act.
Politico is speculating that the Obama administration’s “green czar” may step down, overwhelmed by the political and bureaucratic obstacles to real change.
So greenies need a quick, easy and meaningful win and here’s one that could really change the game: Hiding the renewable-energy subsidies.
Let me explain.
Currently, when Americans gobble up energy, we don’t realize that it’s all subsidized. The Federal government props up oil and gas companies to the tune of around $4.5 billion dollars a year, mostly in the form of tax breaks.
But that complicated — and controversial — reality is hidden from us.
We don’t often connect the dots between wars in Iraq or hugely costly oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and our driving habits.
All we know is that we get reasonably cheap energy when we go to the gas pump, or have our fuel-oil tank filled for the winter.
The same isn’t true for renewable or conservation subsidies. If you want to buy a high-efficiency refrigerator, for example, you usually have to apply for rebates.
Same goes for buying a hybrid car. You have to jump through government hoops to do the right thing — and that’s if the subsidies are available at the time when you’re ready to buy.
And if you want government help to put up a wind tower, install solar panels, or build using a geothermal heat system, you are opening yourself to a world of bureaucratic ballyhoo.
You’ll be filling out forms and dealing with state or Federal agencies until you’re blue in the face.
A quick and non-controversial reform of this system would simply shift the subsidies to the manufacturers and the distributors — along with a mandate that every penny in Federal aid be passed along to the consumer.
That way, when I go to buy a new solar panel array, or a new Prius, it costs a third less than it used to right out of the box. And I don’t have to worry about filling out forms and paperwork.
The green energy industry should, in effect, borrow the oil and gas industry’s “hide the subsidy” approach.
We’ve known for years that the biggest hurdle to going green is the start-up cost, the up-front investment.
If government can help people over that threshhold without tangling them up in red tape, we might spark a real conservation revolution.