Despite pledging in 2009 to phase out public subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, G20 countries have disregarded those promises and are currently spending $88 billion a year in taxpayer money to fund the discovery of new gas, coal, and oil deposits around the world, according to a new report published Tuesday by the Overseas Development Institute and Oil Change International.
The report, titled The Fossil Fuel Bailout: G20 Subsidies for Oil, Gas and Coal Exploration (pdf), found that those explorations risk devastating consequences for world economies and the rapidly warming planet alike. And at $88 billion a year, those states are spending more than double on finding new regions to drill than the top 20 private oil and gas companies—largely with taxpayer money.
As existing wells dry up, discovering new reserves in more remote areas has become costly. In 2013, the world's top 20 oil and gas companies invested just $37 billion in exploring reserves of oil, gas and coal.
"G20 governments' exploration subsidies marry bad economics with potentially disastrous consequences for climate change," write report authors Elizabeth Bast, Shakuntala Makhijani, Sam Pickard and Shelagh Whitley. "In effect, governments are propping up the development of oil, gas and coal reserves that cannot be exploited if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change."
Those countries are creating what the report terms a "triple-lose" scenario: investing financially in high-carbon assets that may cause catastrophic climate effects; diverting potential funds for low-carbon energy alternatives like solar, hydro, and wind power; and undermining prospects for an effective, large-scale climate deal next year.
"The scale at which G20 countries are subsidizing the search for more oil, gas and coal—through national subsidies, investment by state-owned enterprises and public finance for exploration—is not consistent with agreed goals on the removal of fossil fuel subsidies or with agreed climate goals, and is increasingly uneconomic," the report states.
The 2009 pledge, known as the Copenhagen Accord, recognizes that any increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius. But the accord was non-binding—and some of its authors, including the United States, Brazil, and China, are among the biggest financial backers of global fossil fuel exploration. Keeping global temperature increases within 2 C would require leaving almost two-thirds of those untapped reserves in the ground.
"Without government support for exploration and wider fossil-fuel subsidies, large swathes of today’s fossil-fuel development would be unprofitable," the report states. "Directing public finance and consumer spending towards a sector that is uneconomic, as well as unsustainable, represents a double folly... Globally, subsidies for the production and use of fossil fuels were estimated at $775 billion in 2012."
The U.S. has become the world's largest producer of both oil and natural gas, surpassing even Saudi Arabia and Russia. It spends more than $6 billion annually on domestic and foreign fossil fuel exploration projects, mostly through tax deductions, and Congress has rejected every plan to repeal those breaks since President Barack Obama took office, the report notes.
But the Obama administration "also champions the current oil and gas boom as the centerpiece of its ‘All of the Above’ energy strategy, which has been the major driver of the increase in fossil fuel subsidy values," according to the report. And some of the world's largest oil and gas companies, like Exxon-Mobile, Chevron, and BP, "are likely to be benefiting the most from exploration subsidies."
The exact size of this public support is hard to confirm, however, because specific subsidies to individual companies are considered "confidential tax information" in the U.S.
According to the report, every dollar of renewable energy subsidies brings back $2.5 in investments, compared to $1.3 brought by every dollar in fossil fuel subsidies.
"Despite the widespread perception that renewables are costly, our research reveals that finding new fossil fuel reserves is costing nearly $88 billion in exploration subsidies across the G20," Whitley said. "Scrapping these subsidies would begin to create a level playing field between renewables and fossil fuel energy."