Subsidies and Bad Actors

March 12th, 2015 by Phil Mattera

coalashAre corporate subsidies a right or a privilege? Should a company’s accountability track record be a factor in determining eligibility? These questions take on increased relevance in light of two new developments.

The first is that utility giant Duke Energy is being fined $25 million by environmental regulators in North Carolina. The penalty, the largest in state history, relates to the contamination of groundwater by coal ash from Duke’s Sutton power plant near Wilmington. Federal prosecutors are reportedly pursing a separate and broader case against Duke in connection with its large spill of toxic coal ash from another plant into the Dan River.

The other development is that my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First are about to make public a new version of our Subsidy Tracker that for the first time extends coverage to the federal level (the release date is March 17). Without giving away too much ahead of time, I can say that Duke Energy is among the ten largest recipients of grants and allocated tax credits (those awarded to a specific company) for the period since 2000, with a total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Duke got about half of its subsidies in the form of grants from Energy Department programs designed to promote renewable energy and smart grid development. The other half came from a Recovery Act provision that allows companies to receive cash payments for the installation of renewable energy equipment.

Like other large utilities, Duke has taken steps in the direction of renewables while still deriving most of its power from fossil fuels and nuclear. Are federal subsidies helping to wean Duke off dirtier forms of energy, or are they simply enriching a company that is still committed to dirty energy and has shown some serious lapses in its management of its fossil fuel facilities?

Duke is hardly the only major subsidy recipient with a tainted track record. Previously, I discussed the fact that both U.S. banks and foreign banks that received huge amounts of bailout assistance later had to pay billions of dollars to settle allegations on issues such as currency market manipulation and abetting tax evasion.

Federal officials may argue that they were not aware of these practices when the bailouts happened (though these banks hardly had spotless records as of 2008), or they may claim that they had no choice but to bail them out, since they were too big to allow to fail.

Yet the list of large federal subsidy recipients includes other major corporate miscreants. Take the case of BP, which the new database will show as having receiving more than $200 million in federal grants and allocated tax credits. Much of that money postdates its 2010 catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, and even more came after the 2005 explosion at its Texas City, Texas refinery that killed 15 workers and for which the company $60 million in fines to the EPA and $21 million to OSHA.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP was barred from receiving federal contracts, though the debarment was later lifted. Perhaps an even stronger case can be made for disqualifying regulatory violators from receiving federal subsidies, since they are more akin to gifts than payment for goods or services rendered. This is not likely to happen anytime soon, but the release of the new Subsidy Tracker will make it a lot easier to identify which bad actors have been enjoying Uncle Sam’s largesse.

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