15 November 2010

The politics of energy subsidies

From the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies comes a timely rejoinder to the policy in Prince Edward Island of subsidising energy prices out of tax dollars. The arguments in this post refer to the New Democratic Party policy of taxing tax off home heating prices but the concept is the same. The piece is also a timely one for Newfoundland and Labrador where Lorraine Michael recently embraced the policy.  

The argument against the policy of cutting home heating taxes is simple:

It gave people with more than sufficient ability to pay a subsidy they did not need. It encouraged continued consumption at unsustainable levels and it helped the poor not by treating the problem (inefficient homes and too much consumption), but by treating the symptom (high electricity bills).

In Newfoundland and Labrador one suspects that political parties eager – or desperate – for votes in the coming year will lay this sort of policy on thickly to try and buy them up. 

The ruling Conservatives, despite their supposed reform-based Conservative philosophy, are already trying to sell a future deal on the Lower Churchill as a guarantee of stable prices. They don’t talk about the huge subsidies the thing may well involve or that the whole thing will add enormously to the public debt. Incidentally, the likely reason the Premier has stopped referring to loan guarantees as loan guarantees is that he is acutely aware that any Lower Churchill project as he has proposed it will – inevitably – demolish once and for all any claims about the current Conservative administration’s performance in controlling the public debt and deficit.

It’s all bollocks of course.  Energy prices in the province will stay stable anyways without the Lower Churchill.  NALCOR’s own energy demand forecasts don’t support any such megaproject to supply juice to the island portion of the province.  And with a bit of conservation and efficiency, what increased demand there is could go down.

That’s one of the reasons why this AIMS article is interesting:  it specifically points to conservation as an economically sound policy:

the need for some electricity does not undermine the basic math that it is still cheaper and more efficient and, long term, more sustainable to reduce consumption.

At the same time, providing subsidies to allow everyone, but especially low and fixed income Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, to improve the energy efficiency of their homes would treat the problem of high heating bills rather than the symptom.  At the same time, leaving the prices to reflect the cost of production would promote conservation and efficiency.  The whole idea is progressive socially in addition to being economically and ecologically sound.  It beggars the imagination to figure out why political parties would head down a road of subsidies they know is simply  unsustainable.

- srbp -