Of all the lousy things fossil fuels do to our health, finances and national security, add one more: Ideological blindness.
How else can we explain why some otherwise sensible proponents of free markets support huge government subsidies for coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power?
And I’m not talking about global warming. Neither was the National Academy of Sciences when they issued a report late last year about the Hidden Costs of Energy. The report, commissioned by a Republican President and conservative Congress, showed how every year, coal causes 10,000 “premature deaths” in this country alone. The bill for all this death and disease, $63 billion.
This report has no hockey stick graphs or purloined emails or discredited scientists to let anyone off the hook. Breathing coal fumes has catastrophic health and financial consequences. Period.
Every hospital bill, every funeral expense, every missed day from work is a direct subsidy to coal — a cost that the National Academy estimates to be 25 percent to 125 percent of your electricity bill. Coal is very expensive — but it does not seem that way because other people are paying for it.
Oil has different, but even expensive problems. “The web of direct subsidies includes billions in government-sponsored low-cost construction loans and tax breaks like the Foreign Tax Credit,” said energy analyst Blaine Townsend writing about oil subsidies in the San Jose Mercury News. “’Last in, first out’ accounting practices, special write-downs for core operations and royalty ‘relief’ for leases in the Gulf of Mexico have robbed the federal coffers of billions more.”
The International Energy Agency says fossil fuels are subsidized $550 billion a year around the world — 12 times more than alternative fuels.
The Academy steered clear of the biggest cost of all: The expense of sending our best and bravest into harm’s way to protect our oil supply lines. That cost begins with a T.
Regardless of how you feel about how our troops are deployed, we have been making bad decisions for generations because we ignore the real cost of fossil fuels.
If your biggest source of information about energy is TV commercials, right about now you are probably extolling the virtues of natural gas. Clean and cheap, so we are told. Take a look at the recent documentary called Gasland. It’s about how people who live near natural gas wells can hold a lighter to the water coming out of their tap and watch in amazement as it catches fire.
It is not liberal or conservative to observe that if water catches fire, that cannot be good.
Now those who criticize solar say they want to go back to the good old days of cheap gas and electricity. That’s fine. But don’t say that that decision is based on free market principles. Because it is not.
When I studied finance at the University of Chicago, I met on many occasions the icon of free markets, the great man himself: Milton Friedman.
Friedman was concerned with the same thing every economist is concerned about: Cost.
Today, thanks to the National Academy of Sciences, we know that when you compare the cost of oil and coal and natural gas with alternatives such as solar and wind, apples to apples, there is no comparison.
Solar is cleaner, safer and less expensive. And tens of thousands of business owners around the country are figuring that out right now. Even if conservative pundits are not.