Op-Ed | Schumer must halt subsidies to fossil fuels

Chuck Schumer
REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

This week, Governor Hochul showed what climate leadership looks like, striking a major blow against the fossil fuel industry by blocking proposed fracked gas power plants in Queens and the Hudson Valley. It’s an important step towards moving New York off fossil fuels — and it’s a critical one. Now it’s Chuck Schumer’s turn to deliver by ensuring that the Build Back Better Act contains bold policies to prevent climate change.

Schumer’s leadership is desperately needed. Unfortunately, Congress is missing yet another deadline to finalize this vital legislation even as President Biden prepares to represent the United States at an international climate meeting in Scotland. Just as Schumer did this summer, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with activists in Queens to protest fossil fuels in Astoria, the senator must now defend policies at the federal level to move the nation off fossil fuels.

Most urgently, as the Senate Majority Leader, Schumer must stop taxpayer handouts to the fossil fuel companies literally fueling the climate crisis. Senator Schumer has claimed that he wants to eliminate these subsidies. It’s time for him to back up those words with action, demonstrate the power of his convictions, and stand up to the powerful industry, as Governor Hochul has done.

For decades, American taxpayers have financed fossil fuel extraction and burning, providing a financial lifeline for this destructive industry. Thanks to federal loopholes that have been on the books for years, many oil and gas companies can deduct the majority of the costs associated with drilling new wells, meaning they pay almost nothing for fossil fuel extraction. These subsidies, in the form of tax breaks and research and development funding, total around $15 billion a year.

The good news is that the Build Back Better Act, currently being negotiated in Congress, could chart a new clean energy course for our nation, creating policies and programs that will transition us to renewable energy. If handled wrong, it also has the potential to lock us into decades of backwards movement on the existential climate threat. So far, it’s not looking promising. House leadership has failed to meet the moment (https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/2021/09/13/house-ways-means-committee-advances-egregious-fossil-fuel-subsidies/), advancing the act without removing loopholes and tax breaks that funnel billions of dollars to the fossil fuel industry.

To make matters worse, the House bill contains billions of dollars in new subsidies for industry-backed scams like carbon capture, hydrogen and factory farm biogas. These costly false solutions would maintain our reliance on dirty fossil fuels, fueling climate change and its deadly effects, including storms and heat waves that could claim many more of our friends, family, and neighbors.

New York City is highly vulnerable to dangerous weather events and health hazards like extreme heat, which put elderly and low-income residents at risk. Just this summer, we’ve faced heatwave after heatwave, resulting in power outages threatening our community’s health and safety. And Hurricane Ida is not the first deadly storm to hit our borough — October 29 is the ninth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, which killed more than forty people and caused billions of dollars in damages. 

And so we are looking to our Senator Schumer to take the steps necessary to halt this harm and prevent further tragedy. Here’s the bottom line: New Yorkers’ lives are at stake – our lives are at stake. The survival of our homes, our neighborhoods and our communities is at risk. We need Senator Schumer to be a hero, our hero, our champion – and to deliver on his words by providing the leadership to move the nation off fossil fuels and prevent climate catastrophe.

Eric Weltman is a Brooklyn-based senior organizer with Food & Water Watch