Failing The Course: Energy Economics and Subsidies

When I was a young lad in college, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the early 1980s, I took a course in energy economics taught by Prof. Morris Adelman.  I was an anomaly:  there were probably no more than a handful of courses then being taught in energy economics in the colleges and universities around the world, and Adelman was one of the very few people around who could have plausibly been called an “energy economist”.

Thirty years on, and the relative dearth of economic understanding in the energy sector persists.

Certainly, there is much more attention now being paid to the intersection of energy and economics at centers of higher education, but these professors are teaching students who will be leaders 20-40 years from now.

Most of today’s leaders involved in energy policy, who went to school decades ago (as I did), do not seem to have been exposed to (or if so, to have grasped) the importance of economic principles when setting energy policies.

Perhaps this economic ignorance in the energy policy realm is most apparent by the prevalence of energy subsidies.

As I’ve posted before, energy subsidies are powerful and dangerous things:  powerful because they are effective, dangerous because their effects can be bad.

And how prevalent are they?  The International Monetary Fund just issued a new study, entitled “Energy Policy Reform: Lessons and Implications”, that brings a fresh analysis of this difficult-to-measure topic.

By IMF’s estimates, on a worldwide basis, energy subsidies of all types summed to nearly $2.5 trillion in 2011, equating to over 3% of global economic output (GDP).

Certainly, some of the less-developed kleptocratic oil producing countries of the world are among the worst performers.  For instance, under the despotic rule of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela directed nearly 17% of its economic output into energy subsidies.

However, the U.S. performed no better than the world average, with fully 2.4% of its GDP subsidizing American petroleum markets.

This is not a good thing at all.  As the IMF notes right at the top of the executive summary of the report:

“Energy subsidies have wide-ranging economic consequences.  While aimed at protecting consumers, subsidies aggravate fiscal imbalances, crowd-out priority public spending, and depress private investment, including in the energy sector.  Subsidies also distort resource allocation by encouraging excessive energy consumption, artificially promoting capital-intensive industries, reducing incentives for investment in renewable energy, and accelerating the depletion of natural resources.  Most subsidy benefits are captured by higher-income households, reinforcing inequality.”

In all, it’s a long litany of ails that are amplified by energy subsidies.  And yet, they persist.  Why?

Do I really need to answer that question?

Whether future leaders have the strength to prevail over political forces that aim to preserve and enhance energy subsidies remains to be seen.  However, it is cause for some hope that a greater number of future leaders are being better taught about energy economics and better informed by estimates such as those produced by the IMF.

Let’s hope these future leaders pass their energy economics courses — not only when they attend school, but more importantly, when they’re out in the real world and make decisions and recommendations and actions that have consequence to us all.

1 reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] When I was a young lad in college, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the early 1980s, I took a course in energy economics taught by Prof. Morris Adelman.  I was an anomaly:  there were probably no more than a handful of courses then being taught in energy economics in the colleges and […] Cleantech Blog […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!