Fossil Fuel Subsidies: How Corrupt Corporations Exploit Citizens Around the World

Shreyaa Nagajothi | Contributor

Mass casualties, exhorbitant political corruption, and racial discrimination are typically not associated with fossil fuels in the mind of the average American. While the link between fossil fuels and climate change has trickled into mainstream media, the catastrophic consequences both abroad and in our most vulnerable communities, are often largely ignored. Perhaps our willingness to ignore the dangerous consequences of fossil fuel subsidies stems from the fact that their presence is such an integral part of the American experience. If Americans remain indifferent to these global impacts, politicians can continue to pay billions of dollars to fossil fuel companies, subsidizing their inhumane practices in the name of a country that claims to stand for justice. It is imperative that we educate ourselves on the way that fossil fuel subsidies strip away the quality of life of innocent civilians, both domestically and internationally.

When Americans discuss the impacts of fossil fuels, rarely do they consider the devastating consequences they have on citizens in the resource-rich countries where fossil fuel corporations set up mines. Government subsidies of fossil fuel companies reduce the barrier of entry for countries to set up mines overseas and exploit workers and resources in other nations. American mines provoke mass international chaos and bloodshed by driving citizens in other nations to riot in order to protest environmental harms caused by the mines. Darin Christensen of UCLA explains that American ​mining can degrade the environment of host communities by straining and polluting already-scarce water resources. These environmental harms motivate civil unrest around mining sites. Christensen furthers that the presence of a mine causes the probability of a protest or riot to more than double. Citizens in resource-rich countries suffer immensely due to American mines, and they riot in an attempt to make their voices heard. Citizens in other nations thus begin to resent the United States, leading to anti-American sentiment that breeds what our government labels as terrorism. ​Chia-yi Lee of the Center for Multilateralism Studies explains that terrorists attack foreign-owned mines in order to harm the foreign country’s interests. This leads to a 17% increase in terrorist activity, which further endangers citizens who live near mining sites.

 Additionally, mining provokes violence by driving violent groups to attack mining sites, seizing the resources provided by the mines​. Resource-deprived rebel groups want to sell and use fuel resources to fund their operations, and American mines turn previously inaccessible resources into easily seized commodities, encouraging violent looting. Nicolas Berman of the University of Lausanne finds that rebel control of mines leads to a 250% increase in fighting activity. This rebel warfare over resources that become accessible due to American mining puts countless innocent civilians at risk, causing a dramatic increase in casualties.

In addition to causing international chaos, American fossil fuel subsidies have dire consequences for its own citizens. Fossil fuel subsidies both drive excessive government corruption and disproportionately harm low-income minority citizens. The fossil fuel industry maintains its power by exploiting the United States Congress.​ This exploitation takes the form of lobbying, which allows fossil fuel companies to pay congressmen to create policies in their favor.​ Robert Brulle of Drexel University found that the fossil fuel industry spent over $2 billion in lobbying expenditures from 2000 to 2016, and Elizabeth Bast of Harvard University furthers that these expenditures translated to a nearly 12,000% rate of return: for every $1 spent, the industry received $119 back in subsidy money from the government. Fossil fuel companies are able to have such a high rate of return on investment because of the policies that their lobbying enables them to pass. Karen Seto of Yale University explains that lobbying results in an institutional feedback loop in which the companies that most benefit from subsidies push for policies that further their interests, such as loosening climate regulations and reducing federal oversight budgets. These policies both make it cheaper for fossil fuel companies to find and extract fuels and allow government officials to give these companies more subsidy money, enabling them to increase their profits even more and allocate more money towards lobbying. Not only does this lobbying make it effectively impossible to pass legislation that actually reduces the effects of climate change, but it also decreases the average citizen’s political influence. Martin Gilens of Princeton University finds that lobbying leads to elites impacting policy-making by 78%, while the power of average citizens drops to a mere 5%.

Not only do fossil fuel companies diminish American citizens’ voice in politics, but they also systematically harm American communities, specifically those of color. Fossil fuel mines and power plants tend to be placed in communities where low-income individuals reside, which are often disproportionately represented by people of color. Scientific American writes that “The EPA estimates at least 1.5 million people of color live in the catchment areas of coal ash surface impoundments at 277 power plants throughout the country.” These effects are especially prominent right here in Pittsburgh. Kristina Marusic of Environmental Health News finds that poor minority neighborhoods in Pittsburgh see disproportionately high rates of death caused by air pollution. Environmental racism is often overlooked, and it is clearly perpetuated by fossil fuel subsidies. 

While the situation might seem bleak, there are ways to combat the fossil fuel industry and address the root causes of these issues. The United States would be remiss for ignoring the example set by various European countries attempting to minimize their dependence on fossil fuels. According to the Swedish Energy Agency, 54% of Swedish energy comes from renewable sources. In contrast, the United States Energy Information Association reported that a mere 11% of the energy sources in the United States are renewable. The International Energy Agency found that in addition to Sweden, 17 other nations, including France, Spain, and Ireland, significantly reduced their carbon dioxide emissions from 2005-2015. If the United States reduces its reliance on fossil fuels, we will see a significant reduction in the casualties, discrimination, and corruption caused by subsidies. The United States government could also reduce the amount of money it gives to fossil fuel companies, or even stop subsidizing them altogether. This would force fossil fuel companies to scale back their operations. Yet another way to mitigate the effects of fossil fuel subsidies is to put a cap on lobbying. Part of the reason that the fossil fuel industry has such a large influence on the U.S. government is because it is able to spend billions of dollars in lobbying, completely drowning out the voices of environmentalists. While mitigating the effects of fossil fuel subsidies would certainly be difficult, it isn’t impossible. As Americans become more educated on the devastating consequences that these subsidies actually have, we can fight for justice and meaningful change.