The road to repeal

What’s stopping us from eliminating fossil fuel subsidies? 

Alex Smalto

As a society, we’re experiencing increasingly harmful climate change impacts. In dry regions, we’re seeing more wildfires linked to hotter summer temperatures. Near the coasts, rising sea levels are causing major damage in cities and towns. Beyond climate change, air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels is leading to increasing estimated deaths. Alarming warnings from scientists and climate experts urge swift change to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. 

Yet here we are in 2022: The United States government still gives away $20 billion every year to the fossil fuel industry in the form of incentives, tax breaks and subsidies. The fossil fuel industry is one of the biggest polluters and continuing to burn fossil fuels will put us on a path toward an inevitable climate crisis. Twenty fossil fuel companies are responsible for more than one-third of all modern era greenhouse gas emissions. The money they gain in subsidies is going toward building more fossil fuel infrastructure that will produce billions of tons of pollution in its lifetime. At a time when we need to be transitioning to clean, renewable energy as quickly as possible; we can’t afford any more pollution. Even worse, we shouldn’t be subsidizing pollution with hard-earned taxpayer money.

The first pledge to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies came in 2009 by leaders at the G20 summit, where 20 countries representing the world’s biggest economies gathered to discuss major global issues. In their leaders’ statement, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggested that fossil fuel subsidies should be eliminated by 2020. We have yet to actually eliminate them. 

Today, globally, the fossil fuel industry receives $11 million every minute from these subsidies, according to the International Monetary Fund. At this year’s United Nations Climate Conference (COP26), a global summit dedicated to climate solutions on a world stage, a final deal was revised at the last minute to drop language related to a phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies, replacing it with a phase-down, using much weaker language. 

We know much more about climate change now than in 2009. However, even back then we knew enough to understand that burning fossil fuels was causing the problem. So why are these subsidies still around more than 10 years later? 

In the U.S. Congress, multiple bills have been introduced since the 2009 G20 pledge to end fossil fuel subsidies. From the Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act, first introduced in 2010, to the most comprehensive End Polluter Welfare Act of 2020, all have attempted to repeal fossil fuel subsidies. However, these pieces of legislation have struggled in Congress, and so far none have gotten over the finish line. 

The fossil fuel industry’s outsized political sway presents the biggest obstacle to getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies. These industries shovel massive amounts of money into lobbying to make sure that these subsidies stay in the tax code. In 2021 alone, these fossil fuel giants spent $84 million on oil and gas lobbying. Furthermore, a 2019 report found that BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Total collectively spend $195 million a year in greenwashing tactics trying to brand themselves as clean energy champions, when they continue to fuel the climate crisis. At COP26, there were more delegates associated with the fossil fuel industry than from any single country. 

But the fossil fuel industry itself isn’t our only obstacle. Although the American public supports ending fossil fuel subsidies, there aren’t enough members of Congress who feel the same. Members on both sides of the aisle have presented major roadblocks to repealing fossil fuel subsidies. Moreover, our divisive political environment hasn’t helped. Rather, it’s become a congressional barrier. The infrastructure bill, for example, which was just recently signed into law, took months to pass even though it touts multiple programs that will help better Americans’ lives for generations to come, not only in clean energy but by implementing key social programs as well. 

Our elected leaders reflect our national priorities. Climate change needs to become a higher priority for more Americans – only then will it become a higher priority for our decision-makers. Once it’s clear that Americans want to see change, candidates that support climate policies will be the only ones able to win seats in Washington. Then we will be able to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies once and for all. 

But we can only make this happen if we all come together to act on climate and do our part in ensuring a livable planet for generations to come. We need to engage our allies as well as those who don’t share our ideology to show them that climate change is hurting Americans in all corners of our nation. If we continue to delay action on addressing climate change and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, no one will be left untouched.

It’s time for tangible change, which means a strong show of support for holding polluters and the fossil fuel industry accountable for fueling the climate crisis. We must take away the power and money that lets them evade responsibility. Americans of all stripes need to come together to rally for a fossil-free future so that our hopes of repealing fossil fuel subsidies become a reality.


Image: Eelco Böhtlingk,


Alex Smalto

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