How the Environmental Movement Can Hit Big Oil Where It Counts

Monday, January 30, 2012

Last week I had the opportunity to hear environmental leader and 350.org founder Bill McKibben speak at a demonstration on Capitol Hill. The demonstration was organized in partnership with major environmental groups including Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club, who are flushed with victory after their 10,000-strong demonstration around the White House succeeded in pressuring the Obama administration to deny TransCanada Corp. a permit to build the much-coveted Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Speaking on the Hill, McKibben denounced legislators’ support for the pipeline and the influence of oil industry money in politics.

“People’s chief demand today was that Congress stop giving the fossil fuel industry gifts in the form of billions in useless subsidies just so politicians can cash in the favor for campaign contributions,” he stated.

350.org is among the groups that are building a campaign to end federal subsidies to the oil industry, which the Center for American Progress estimated at $4 billion annually.

While ending subsidies to a mature industry that arguably exerts far too much influence over our political system is a worthy goal, when considered relative to its quarterly profits alone – $35.1 billion in the second quarter of 2011, according to CAP – it is clear that it will take much more to slay this dragon.

The way to really hit Big Oil where it counts is to force it to compete in the transportation fuels market, where it currently maintains an effective monopoly and where it generates massive profits.

The Open Fuel Standard Act (H.R. 1687) is designed to do exactly that. By requiring vehicles produced in the U.S. to be capable of running on a mixture of gasoline and competitive renewable fuels such as methanol, the bill would stimulate private investment in clean fuels and refueling stations across the country. This would lead to a steady long-term decrease in oil consumption as more nascent technologies such as electric vehicles become more affordable for American consumers.

One sentiment that resonated with me while speaking with environmentalists last week was that a campaign against oil subsidies would represent a shift from defense to offense. To a movement that has been perpetually outmatched financially and is frequently fighting on its heels, I say use your people power to create business competitors for Big Oil and watch their political dominance decline along with their profits.

Doesn’t it feel good to play offense?

Thomas J. Buonomo is an Energy Policy Advocate for the Open Fuel Standard Coalition. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Political Science and Middle East Studies from the U.S. Air Force Academy and has spent the past six years researching U.S. energy and national security policy.

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