One of the arguments we’re given for the continued use of fossil fuels is cost. We’re told it’s much cheaper than renewable energy like wind and solar, because the infrastructure and supply chains are already in place. We just can’t afford to do the same for other energy right now. It’s a rigged argument, because it fails to take into account the long-term health and environmental effects caused by the extraction, refining, and waste disposal. These are called externalities.
A region known as cancer alley is downwind of the Houston area’s megalopolis of oil and gas refineries. It stretches across Eastern Texas and into Louisiana. The rates of cancer, asthma, and other chronic ailments are much greater there. The oil and gas companies don’t pay a nickel to any of these victims; the burden falls on the health care system, leading to ever-increasing insurance premiums, for those who can afford health care, that is. That isn’t a strong area, economically. On top of that, these industries are heavily subsidized by the federal government, so all these externalities are ultimately paid for by American taxpayers. We’re also paying the U.S. Navy to guard the shipping lanes so these corporations can safely import and export their product. The fossilized fuel industry doesn’t pay a penny. In Europe, many of these costs are added to the cost of petrol, which is one reason gas prices are more than double those in the U.S. And you won’t find oil refineries over there, either. These governments care about the health of all their citizens.
Hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits is contaminating the drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people across the country. It’s making a lot of people sick, too. Do you think these companies give a frack? I can assure you they do not. At best, spills or other accidents, usually due to callous negligence, may earn a fine (after a long court battle) — basically couch cushion change for these monolithic entities. In a sane world these companies would be held accountable for all the damage they cause. All these hidden costs are paid for by American taxpayers, in one way or another.
We see the same effects in the Appalachians, because of mountaintop removal. Freshwater streams, natural wells, and other environmental desecration has transformed pristine countryside into moonscapes. Nowhere is the destruction greater than West Virginia. Coal brings huge profits, yet this is the poorest state in the union. Hundreds of reservoirs of coal waste putting more fly ash into the air, containing arsenic, mercury, and a host of other heavy metals, all known carcinogens. Again, none of these costs are absorbed by those doing the damage. If one were to factor all these externalities into the cost of fossil fuels — whoa, now alternative energy is way cheaper, isn’t it? Gasoline would cost probably $10 a gallon more.
When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, we were told how the atom was our friend. Electric power would be too cheap to even meter! But when the first nuclear power plants were being designed, there wasn’t a single insurance company that would touch the industry; the cost of a major accident would break them. So the federal government passed the Price-Anderson Act. It specified that in the event of a major accident, the government would basically be the insurer. That is to say, the American taxpayer.
Runoff from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, fouls streams and rivers, especially chicken and hog farms in the Southeast. These companies pay nothing for the damage they cause in algae blooms, fish kills, and exotic new bacteria strains. Down the line, it’s all picked up by American taxpayers.
Walmart is America’s biggest private employer. They’ve spread across the nation like a plague of locusts, leaving a wake of failed small businesses that couldn’t compete. How Walmart affects localities is a seldom told tale. They promise lots of new jobs and low-priced products (mostly made in China). They’ll do all this for the community, but first, they want an abeyance on all local taxes, or there’s no deal. So they play nothing for maintenance of roads, highways, and bridges. They pay nothing for police and fire protection. And because the local businesses who DID contribute to the tax base are gone, there’s less revenue for that community’s needs. It gets worse, I’m afraid. Because Walmart pays crappy wages to their workers, this company has by far the biggest percentage of workers on food stamps and Medicaid. Once again, the American taxpayer picks up the tab, in the end, or maybe I should say up the ass. Taking advantage of services you don’t pay taxes for, paying workers so little they need social programs just to stay afloat, destroying small businesses, selling Chinese junk full of toxic substances — could you ask for a worse business plan? We the consumers and taxpayers are really paying part of those employees’ wages. Meanwhile, the four or five heirs to the Walmart fortune have more combined wealth than the bottom 40% of the country, and that doesn’t sound right to me.
The big restaurant chains have found a way to externalize employee wages, too. Depending on the state, buspersons and wait staff may be paid as little as $2.13 an hour, because average tips these people are projected to receive will add up to the minimum wage. It’s known as tip credit, and it’s another legacy of the Reagan years, when they first began calculating projected tips as part of wages. We’re already paying employee wages by patronizing the restaurant, but now we’re required to pay tips just so the employee can make minimum wage. This atrocity came about through lobbying efforts of the other NRA, the National Restaurant Association. In this instance, ‘chains’ is metaphorical of slave wages.
From all this, I think we can clearly see who the real welfare cheats are. It was consumer advocate Ralph Nader who coined the term “corporate welfare” forty years ago, echoed by Chris Hedges’ assertion that America has become a welfare state for the rich. But these are the job creators! Well, they’re not; job creation is triggered only by consumer demand. And even so, why should risk and reward mean that most of us are saddled with the risk, while a tiny few reap the rewards? How can we make these corporations pay their own way, without them passing it all on to us? Your guess is as good as mine. It would take political will for Congress to make any changes, and Congress is broken. All the more reason to switch to energy sources that are cheaper, more sustainable, and have a minimum of externalities.