Subsidies for Big Oil

One of the many websites a check every day is the Environmental News Service (ENS). Today they carried this story about a move in Congress to end tax breaks for fossil fuel company investments. The story begins this way:

Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, and Congressmen Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, today introduced a legislation to end billions of dollars in subsidies for the oil, gas and coal industries.

The Sanders-Ellison End Polluter Welfare bill abolishes federal policies making Americans taxpayers pay for fossil fuel company investments. Under current law, more than $110 billion in federal subsidies would go to the oil, coal and gas industries in the coming decade.

$110 billion is a lot of money, no doubt. But I’ve heard this argument before, and it’s not true: The U.S. Treasury does not subsidize oil companies; oil companies, like all other companies in the United States, are allowed to take certain cost-of-doing-business deductions under the tax code. Here’s a bit from a Washington Post fact check on the issue:

Technically speaking, the government has allowed only tax deductions to help oil companies recover the cost of doing business — this is standard in virtually all industries. No money from the U.S. Treasury goes to the oil industry, so it’s a stretch to describe the tax breaks as literal handouts like Solyndra received…Admittedly, we’re talking about a semantics issue here. But we can’t understand why the DNC and Obama continue to use the word “subsidies” in such a questionable way, especially when the term “tax breaks” is more accurate and indisputably true.

A couple things about the ENS story: first, I strongly believe in calling things what they are. Words have meaning; do not use the wrong word, or change the meaning of the word, to give your argument more power. You will lose. Second, one thing that drives me nuts about ENS and similar sites is that they don’t engage in any analytical reporting. They easily could have explored the Sanders-Ellison bill in a little depth, reporting both sides of the issue. They then could have taken an editorial stand, one way or the other, regarding the debate. But they didn’t and they never do. The research is left up to the reader. Be aware. And third, in the end it only makes a small difference if you are willing to study the issues that affect and interest you and make an informed decision. Each of us has a responsibility to be an informed voter.

For my part, I could be very interested in addressing the tax deductions received by big business, including big oil. However, the moment I sense that the facts are being withheld or muddled, I begin to challenge both the motivation and the wisdom of what I am reading or being told. That is not the way to win an argument.

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