Renewable Help (Harm Principle Modernized Pt. II)
I recently wrote about The Harm Principle and how there are relationships between the foundation of Mill’s theory and the potential of a new case of crimes against peace within the United Nations: ecocide. However, does this theory hold true throughout the United States three branches of government?
To review, the Harm Principle is a theory based on the involvement of government in the lives of individuals. It states that society has no right to infringe on the actions of an individual, unless the actions infringe on the liberties of other individuals – for example, the right to life, liberty and property. If the actions of one individual harm the liberties of another, society has the responsibility to intervene and protect democracy.
Let us look at the oil industry. In the 1970’s and early 80’s, oil prices saw a huge spike i n price per barrel as a result of OPEC’s oil embargo and the peak production of oil in the United States. The reaction of United States was to rely on a decade of subsidies and tax breaks to promote the development of more oil as opposed to using the opportunity for research in cleaner forms of energy. The turn of the decade brought about the promise of price stability with a few hiccups (Oil Price Shock of 1990). However, as oil prices began to rise at the end of the century, tax breaks and subsidies rose to keep those prices down, or at least stable. In fact, over the past three decades, we have seen around sixteen years of tax incentives on fossil fuels reaching three billion – seven of those years tax breaks reached six billion. Since the year 2000, we have seen nine years of subsidies reaching over 1.5 billion for fossil fuels.
(Take a closer and cleaner look at the Shifting Energy Tax Breaks Graph from the NY Times)
The oil industry has taken root in the American economy, but with the help of the United States government. Let us revisit Mill’s Harm Principle. Individuals have the right to act as they please – to produce oil. However, if their actions (such as drilling and burning oil for fuel) harm other individuals, society has the responsibility to intervene – not to subsidize and hold the oil industry’s hand through hard times.
If we look at the renewable energy industry, we can see that politicians are starting to get it. Journalist Robert Semple of the New York Times states, “many politicians have come to realize that fossil fuels exact big social costs, federal subsidies have swung slowly toward projects that produce wind and solar power.” However, subsidies and tax breaks for renewables remain young, very young. In fact, since 1980, renewables have seen only two years of incentives reaching over three billion – the only positive we may take from that is those two years were 2009 and 2010. Priorities may be starting to shift.
The case against this argument may be to do away with federal support for the energy industry altogether. Former Utah Governor and GOP Presidential candidate hopeful John Huntsman stated just this week that he wants to break up oil’s monopoly on the energy industry, by promoting alternative fuels. One way to do so, as Huntsman states, is to “systemically begin to eliminate every subsidy for energy companies, whether it be oil, natural gas, wind or solar.” While he followed this statement by endorsing hydraulic fracking as an alternative method – the idea is not all that crazy. The oil industry should no longer be given help for polluting our environment and driving social costs through the roof. My only response to Huntsman, neither should the natural gas industry.
Robert Semple put it best, “Oil and Gas had help. Why not Renewables?” Two years of subsidies and tax incentives, and one Solyndra type failure does not put into question government support for energy innovation – federal support for energy has always occurred. However, we should give renewables a chance and stop holding the oil industry’s hand. It does not need our help anymore. If the government wants to subsidize anything, compare the market, social and environmental costs of renewables vs. oil/natural gas and then gage if the government should intervene or not. John Huntsman may be surprised.