Trump’s looming scandal of fossil fuel subsidies on federal lands

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President Trump’s energy policies have established a wide-spread effort to rig the economy in favor of big energy and mining companies at the expense of the American public, while burying the evidence in secrecy.

Early on, the Trump administration and Congress acted to keep its energy giveaways secret by repealing requirements that fossil fuel companies disclose publicly their tax, royalty and lease payments to federal and state governments. The rule, which had bipartisan support when it was included in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, was part of a 50-plus nation anti-corruption movement — an effort Zinke has announced the U.S. will abandon.

{mosads}For other countries, disclosing government payments by oil, gas, and coal companies is aimed at detecting bribes. In the U.S., the overturned rule would have revealed how little those companies pay in taxes, public royalties and lease payments. Researchers and reporters could have tracked the hidden subsidies to fossil fuel companies — information those companies do not want the public to know.


This first step by the Trump administration to keep subsidies secret was a setup for enormous actions to convert public lands into profit centers for oil, gas and coal corporations at great cost to the public and with a reckless disregard of the law. These actions include:

  • Interior, conferring secretlywith fossil fuel companies, repealed rules closing loopholes that have cost American taxpayers tens of billions in lost revenue.
  • To replace those rules, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke appointed a royalty policy committee beset with conflicts of interest including companies that — having incurred half of Interior’s fines — are among the worst violators of royalty rules.
  • Zinke cut the royalty rate on offshore oil to 12.5 percent from the 18.75 percent rate set in the George W. Bush administration.
  • Interior is vastly expanding oil, gas, and coal leasing when energy prices are low — guaranteeing bargain basement prices for public resources and short-changing American taxpayers, states and communities.
  • Interior has targeted for elimination or reduction virtually every effort to identify and mitigate environmental damage caused by energy development, shifting costs to the public that should be paid by industry.
  • Trump, following a blueprint prepared in secret by Zinke, is shrinking several national monuments and seemingly turning these sensitive lands into oil and gas fields, coal and uranium mines to be sold under lax lease and royalty policies.

Fossil fuel subsidies cause real harm. In October, the magazine Nature published a major study showing that at $50 a barrel for oil, nearly half of the oil production would be unprofitable except for federal subsidies. Simply put: oil production is propped up by public welfare.

While unjustified subsidies for fossil fuels have long existed, their expansion in the Trump administration in the face of climate change is a disgraceful scandal. Keeping the subsidies secret is unconscionable. 

For years, public interest groups have worked separately on parts of these problems. Some focused on bribery and influence peddling by energy companies. Tax justice groups fought to end unjustified tax breaks. Conservation groups resisted giveaways of public lands and minerals. Meanwhile, not enough has been done to create sustainable opportunities for communities and workers.

The separate efforts have yielded too little progress. It is time for citizen groups and concerned officials to launch coordinated efforts to end the hidden subsidies to fossil fuel companies, stop Trump and Zinke’s giveaways, and develop a better future for public lands and the people who depend on them.

Dan Bucks served as director of Montana’s Department of Revenue from 2005-2013, and executive director of the Multistate Tax Commission from 1988-2004. 

Tags Dan Bucks Donald Trump Drilling Environment Fossil fuels public lands Ryan Zinke Subsidies

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