IMF Mad Hatters’ Notion of Hydrocarbon “Subsidies”

Spread the love

From Science Matters

By Ron Clutz

The recent IMF updated report on fossil fuel subsidies took on the appearance of the Mad Hatter’s tea party (Alice in Wonderland) when you look into what is claimed to be subidizing hydrocarbon energy.  Robert Lyman explains the tricks and dishonesty running through this ongoing narrative against conventional energy sources, while ignoring the massive taxpayer direct funding of wind and solar power.  His Financial Post article is Most fossil-fuel ‘subsidies’ aren’t actually subsidies.  Excerpts later on with my bolds and added images.  But my overview of the context for these remarks.

Context–Back to Basic Terms

Climate activists and renewables lobbyists are acting like Mad Hatters, twisting language and logic to pursue their agendas. Let there be some common sense injected here.

subsidy would be when the government takes money that has been taxed, borrowed, or printed, and pays it to some company like Solyndra to do something that the market does not support. Often these subsidies subsidize technologies that do not exist and may never exist (and they say WE ignore the laws of physics.)

In contrast, a tax reduction is NOT a subsidy. A tax credit says an industry gets to keep more of its own money that it has produced selling a product people want and need in the free market.

There is a huge difference between a law that lets you keep more of your own money; and another law that actually gives you someone else’s money. The two are not the same thing. Actually, the oil industry pays higher taxation rates than other industries and subsidizes the government with the billions it pays in taxes, not the other way around.

There are also billions more in economic benefit to the nation from the jobs they create and the increased mobility and productivity people enjoy by using our transportation system based on hydrocarbon fuels.

The Big Lie:  IMF counts not charging companies the full costs of global warming
as a subsidy. Common sense says it isn’t

Economists are used to having their terminology misinterpreted, co-opted and misused, usually in the interests of politics. One of the most common words to suffer this fate is “subsidy.” The Gage Canadian dictionary defines a subsidy as “a grant or contribution of money, especially one made by a government.” Economists would agree with that definition. Governments, on the other hand, rarely acknowledge that they subsidize anything. They “invest” — though, curiously, they seldom refer to the rate of return on their investments.

I was reminded of all this by the news last week that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has published an updated version of its 2015 Working Paper on global and country-level subsidies for fossil fuels. According to the paper, total global subsidies “surged to a record $7 trillion last year,” equivalent to 7.1 per cent of world GDP. The paper’s authors estimate that scrapping these subsidies would: prevent 1.6 million premature deaths annually, raise government revenues by $4.4 trillion and put emissions on track to reaching official global warming targets. An annex to the report indicates that in 2020 Canada’s subsidies to fossil fuels were US$64 billion, or 3.8 per cent of GDP.

The paper’s extraordinary findings are almost entirely the result of how it defines “subsidy.”
It divides subsidies to fossil fuels into “explicit” and “implicit” subsidies.

Subsidies Wordplay

Explicit subsidies are the kind economists and ordinary people would recognize as subsidies: grants to cover some portion of the costs of production, as well as tax incentives and deductions (e.g., capital cost allowances) to fossil fuel producers for such things as investing in exploration and development.

By contrast, “implicit” subsidies are defined as “under-charging” producers for the environmental costs they generate from their exploration and production activities and consumers for perceived environmental costs not adequately covered by various consumption taxes (e.g., sales taxes, value-added taxes and carbon taxes).

So when, for instance, a country fails to impose a consumption tax high enough
to cover the perceived costs to society of climate change, congestion or
local pollution, the paper would classify that as a subsidy.

The working paper indicates that explicit global subsidies were US$450 billion in 2020, or six per cent of the total. Most of these are actually so-called tax expenditures: tax credits or deductions for investments in high-risk exploration and development activities, similar to those provided to firms in other sectors of the economy.

94% of Hydrocarbon “Subsidies’ Actually “Externalties”

That leaves the 94 per cent of subsidies that were what the paper refers to as “externalities.” Let’s be clear. Externalities are not subsidies. They are a cost or benefit of an economic activity that affects a third party not directly related to that activity. The cost is not always evident, nor is it clear by what mechanisms such costs and benefits should be shared. While the paper does not break down the percentages attributed to externalities, its 2015 predecessor estimated that the costs of global warming were 37 per cent, local air pollution 13 per cent, congestion 32 per cent, vehicle accidents five per cent and road damage two per cent. In effect, the paper is arguing that not making the fossil fuel industry pay the full cost of global warming constitutes a subsidy to the industry. The same for its not paying the full cost of local air pollution or of traffic congestion or road deaths, and so on. Attribution of any of these costs to fossil fuels is highly questionable, but one obvious question is why fossil fuels are to blame for road congestion. If all vehicles were electric, would there be no congestion?

The vast majority of what the paper calls “subsidies” thus relate to charges not imposed for the harmful external effects of consuming fossil fuels, especially in oil-producing countries that choose to impose lower excise and sales taxes on gasoline and other fuels. The paper finds that East Asia and the Pacific regions account for almost half of total global energy subsidies. In effect, the report concludes that the prices of energy should be substantially raised for the world’s poor. This, of course, was not noted in the media summaries of the paper.

The paper did not explain how it calculated Canada’s 2020 subsidies to fossil fuels but, given its general analysis, one can only assume it was based on the judgment that fossil fuel costs to consumers were not high enough. But in 2018, total taxes on gasoline alone were roughly $24 billion. One has to wonder how the IMF’s math figures that this, and the more recent increases in carbon taxes, still constitute under-charging for externalities.

A final difficulty with the IMF paper is that it excludes any consideration of the positive externalities from reliance on fossil fuels. They are the most secure, affordable, storable, and reliable energy sources we have, and the ones upon which the remarkable advances in the global economy over the last century have been based. That is well worth bearing in mind as we consider the meaning of “subsidy.”


The Mad Hatters turn things upside down. Society is subsidized and made wealthy by fossil fuels, not the other way around. Some of that wealth is being diverted to renewable energy companies who do not create enough value to be in business without direct payments of tax dollars. They prove it by declaring bankruptcy when their subsidies are reduced.  Worse, hooking up wind and solar intermittent power to electrical grids adds more cost and unreliability than the renewable power is worth.

Read More about Energy Subsidies Abuse

The Appalling Truth About Energy Subsidies at Euan Mearns

Renewable Energy Cost Explosion: €25,000 euros for each German family of four  Daniel Wetzel, Die Welt (translation by GWPF)

What’s an Oil Subsidy? Heritage Foundation

Net Subsidy Analysis: A Better Way to Assess Government Energy Policy MasterResource

Why the Best Path to a Low-Carbon Future is Not Wind or Solar Power Brookings Institution

Killing the Energy Goose Science Matters

At its prime, the Carrizo Plain (S. California) was by far the largest photovoltaic array in the world, with 100,000 1′x 4′ photovoltaic arrays generating 5.2 megawatts at its peak. The plant was originally constructed by ARCO in 1983 and was dismantled in the late 1990s. The used panels are still being resold throughout the world.