New Energy Subsidies

As I wrote before, the new Democratic Congress try to end certain subsidies received by major oil companies.  All fine and good, at least as long as it is really a subsidy and not just an contract obligation they would like to get out of.

One might be led to believe that the Democrats were finally going to address the corporate welfare issues they have been promising to deal with for years.  Unfortunately, it appears that they are really only looking for an excuse for some populist demagoguing against Exxon.  Subsidies still appear to be A-OK:

The Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren are all in favor of eliminating energy subsidies.  By that measure, they find
the House Democrats' 100-hour energy legislation -- H.R. 6, the
Creating Long-Term Energy Alternatives for the Nation Act (aka the
"CLEAN Energy Act") -- to be quite a disappointment.

Energy subsidies, of course, have been a historical disaster.  If you have ever traveled around California, a common site you will see is 1) Windmills that are not working and 2) Rooftop solar fixtures that appear badly broken.  That is because these facilities were installed cheaply as subsidy magnets, rather than actual, you know, investments that made any sense.   Here in Arizona, every third rich persons SUV has this Arizona environmentally-friendly license plate that says the truck is dual-fuel.  When I moved here, I though that was kind of cool.  I know several countries that have good CNG (compressed natural gas) economies in their transportation sector.  It turns out, though, that none of these vehicles actually fill up with anything but gasoline.  Several years ago Arizona had a subsidy for buying dual-fuel trucks that exceeded the cost of conversion, so that everyone did the conversion as a money-maker. 

And these are far from being the worst.  How many billions have been sunk into R&D rat-holes that have produced nothing except some professor's tenure?  Remember that alternative energy and energy conservation technologies are among the hottest sectors in venture capital nowadays.  The VC's I know can't get enough of these projects, and are project rather than money limited.  This means that every subsidy and grant for energy can only go to one of two places:

  • Projects that are already going to be privately funded, so that all they do is displace private funding, which makes them a total waste of taxpayer money
  • Projects that were rejected for private funding as uneconomic or unpromising, such that the spending is a waste unless you assume Congressmen and government bureaucrats are sharper than VC's in picking investments.

My observation is the two political parties differ on subsidies only in terms of style.  The Democrats appear to have no problems with subsidies as long as they go to sympathetic and fashionable companies (e.g. Google via net neutrality) rather than companies they have deemed to be unfashionable (e.g. Exxon).

  • Matt

    It's worth pointing out, in the name of simple honesty, that the prospect of future government subsidies may be a significant driver of the large quantity of private dollars being offered for investment in alternative energy development. (Which is not, of course, to imply that the subsidies are a good idea, but merely that true private demand may be significantly less than the VC community's behavior indicates, since VCs are definitely not immune from the temptations to rent-seeking.)

  • http://www.catbirdseat.typepad.com Ray G

    Yes, yes, just mention farm subsidies, or even - gasp! - ethanol subsidies, and watch them jerk and writhe.

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