Americans are paying the price for our oil addiction — in more ways than one

Since 1793, when the Industrial Revolution began in the United States, Americans have paid very steep prices for coal, oil and natural gas. We haven’t been aware of it, though. If we had, carbon-free renewable energy would have outcompeted carbon fuels in the marketplace long ago.

Instead, market forces are distorted in favor of carbon-rich energy. Consumers should pay what fossil fuels really cost.

How much of the cost is hidden? The usual answer is about $20 billion annually in government tax breaks. But a new report from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates fossil fuels cost Americans $757 billion annually when we count environmental, health and economic damages. That’s $2,243 for every man, woman and child in the nation.

Ozone air pollution from cars, power plants, industrial boilers and oil refineries causes breathing problems for more Americans than any other single pollutant. According to the American Lung Association, more than one-third of us are at high risk of health problems. Oil and gas production is responsible for $77 billion annually in health costs.

The rising costs of weather disasters are a significant part of what society pays. Climate change makes them stronger and more frequent. A dozen large climate disasters cost nearly $33 billion in the first half of this year, the second-highest amount on record.

The IMF reports that indirect environmental and social costs account for $754 billion of the $757 billion in the United States’ annual subsidies. None of it shows up at the pump or on the meter.

This is a global problem. All the world’s countries have vowed to phase out fossil energy subsidies, but it isn’t happening. The IMF says worldwide energy subsidies rose to $7 trillion last year — $2 trillion more than three years ago. It predicts the cost will increase to $8.2 trillion by the end of this decade.

Dollars don’t count the human toll, most recently to the people of Lahaina. And the families whose homes were washed away by floods in northeastern states last month. And the people suffering unprecedented temperatures this summer under a heat dome that stretched from coast to coast. And the victims of 82 large wildfires underway in 16 states, adding to the nearly 40,000 wildfires that have burned 2 million acres in the U.S. so far this year.

Many Americans may not realize the United States has warmed 68 percent faster than the planet as a whole. Billion-dollar disasters that occurred once every four months in the 1980s now happen every three weeks. Sea level rise here is some of the most severe anywhere in the world.

“In plain language, things that we haven’t seen before — including from a magnitude and duration standpoint — are now entering the realm of physical possibility, and will only become more severe as the climate warms further,” The Washington Post explains.

Nevertheless, the profit-hungry industry and its supporters are unfazed.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts American crude oil production will set a new record this year and another next year. Thirty years of climate-change denial and political spending have sustained the industry. Today, nearly eight in 10 Democrats in the U.S. consider climate change a major threat, while only two in 10 Republicans think so. In a Pew Research Center poll earlier this year, climate change ranked only 17th among 21 national issues. Yet the top issues — the economy, health care costs, immigration and the budget deficit — all are threatened by global warming and its impacts.

Poll results might change if conservative leaders and media told their voters and viewers about the real costs of fossil fuels; instead, they continue to deny there’s a climate emergency. A study issued last February found that trade groups historically opposed to climate action spent $2 billion from 2008 to 2018 on advertising, political contributions and lobbying — far more than any other sector, and $27 for every $1 spent by climate-action groups.

Oil and gas companies spent more than $124 million to lobby the federal government in 2022 and more than $30 million in contributions to political candidates for Congress. Republicans received three dollars for every dollar to Democrats.

“If we want the world to survive and prosper, we need to grow up,” business executive Mark Atherley wrote recently. “Next time you read a story of the incompetence of our leaders, remember that if we vote for them, we deserve them.”

Thought leaders from Thomas Jefferson to French philosopher Joseph De Maistre have warned, “We get the government we deserve.” Today, we’re getting the world we deserve by helping the carbon cartel hide its true costs.  

William S. Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, is a co-editor of and a contributor to “Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People.”

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