Politics of Poverty

Bail out people, not oil & gas companies

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A natural gas worker in Tanzania. Coronavirus relief packages must extend to workers, including assistance to those laid off in the oil and gas sector. Photo: Oxfam America/Andrew Bogrand

The newly introduced ReWIND Act in Congress would ensure that COVID-19 relief efforts target those most in need—rather than prop up fossil fuel companies.

The Resources for Workforce Investment, Not Drilling (ReWIND) Act introduced in Congress last week by Sen. Merkley and Reps. Barragán, Huffman, Omar, and Jayapal and over 30 other original co-sponsors is a critical bill to thwart the fossil fuel industry’s opportunistic attempts to take advantage of coronavirus economic relief to bail out their industry.

In this dire moment in which millions of people are sick and tens of millions are out of work, economic relief must prioritize the most needy: families affected directly by the novel coronavirus, front-line workers, and those who have lost jobs or seen their hours or pay cut. But proposed giveaways of taxpayer dollars to the oil, gas, and coal sectors–for which industry has been intensively lobbying– would not serve those who need relief most, and do little to nothing to provide for oil and gas workers at risk. Instead it would only exacerbate existing inequalities and lock in dangerous carbon emissions.

That’s why Oxfam supports the ReWIND Act, which would prevent fossil fuel executives from getting preferential treatment to bail themselves out of pre-pandemic crises of their own making. The legislation would also ensure Americans receive a fair shake for their natural resources and prevent industry from gutting longstanding regulations that protect the environment, our health, and our safety.

The fossil fuel sector is already reliant on our money

Many sectors of the economy have faced challenges due to the pandemic, but the economic woes of the oil and gas sector precede the virus. A glut in supply, an overreliance on debt, and risky bets on economically questionable projects with catastrophic climate impacts and significant local pollution have created a deeply unstable sector.

Recent polling commissioned by Oxfam and Data for Progress shows that American voters are very supportive of sustained government support for small business but skeptical of interventions to support large companies. The research found that providing low-interest government loans to oil and gas companies has the lowest level of voter support.

Instead of continuing to prop up a sector that already relies heavily on taxpayer-funded subsidies and tax carveouts, causing local harms, while massively contributing to the climate crisis, government coronavirus relief should focus on what the American people need most in this pandemic: health and livelihoods. Relief must also extend to communities in oil and gas producing regions, including assistance to the 51,000 sector workers who lost their jobs in March, and protections for other workers threatened by layoffs to come.

Stop throwing good money after bad oil

The ReWIND Act would prevent the oil and gas industry from using its influence in Washington to get a bailout unpopular with voters.

The $2 trillion CARES Act relief package passed in March already included a number of opportunities for oil and gas companies to access federal assistance. Unsatisfied with these benefits, the industry then lobbied the Federal Reserve to allow even bigger companies to access the Main Street Lending Program meant to help small and medium sized businesses. Now companies with up to $5 billion in revenue will be able to use coronavirus relief funds to make payments on their debt (rather than say, prioritizing worker protections and payroll). The Trump administration is even considering a program to make more federal funds available to oil and gas companies with bad credit scores. Talk about risky.

The ReWIND Act would combat these attempts to bailout the oil and gas industry by:

  • Prohibiting fossil fuel companies from capitalizing on the coronavirus crisis to secure debt relief following a decade of questionable investments, whether under the existing CARES Act or under the Defense Production Act.
  • Barring banks receiving funds through the CARES Act from operating or investing in fossil fuel companies.
  • Ensuring the US government and the public are not shortchanged for oil and gas deposits while bearing greater risks of environmental, social and climate-related costs.

Oxfam’s experience across 30 countries with major oil, gas, and mining sectors shows that the prospective benefits of extraction are often exaggerated while potential costs are downplayed or dismissed outright–particularly in the case of the climate crisis. The ReWIND Act would help the American public improve the cost-benefit calculation of extraction by preventing the Trump administration from giving away new oil and gas leases at fire sale prices or reducing the royalties oil and gas companies pay on federal lands and waters. These royalty revenues are critical not only for the federal government, but also for states that are struggling to respond to the novel coronavirus. It would also block new administrative rulemakings during the pandemic, including those that would allow private oil and gas companies to wreak further havoc on the environment.

The ReWIND Act and more equitable solutions for recovery

Much like the “Too Big to Fail” banks bailed out in the 2008-2010 financial crisis, today’s US government bailouts for the oil and gas industry reward companies that made risky investments with US taxpayer money. As a result, the bailouts incentivize continued bad investments such as uneconomic US shale projects whose carbon and methane emissions fuel global climate change at rapid pace.

Covid-19 threatens all US citizens, but it doles out its greatest health risks and most acute economic harm unequally. Congress should not shower additional benefits on an entrenched industry that risks undermining our immediate as well as our sustainable transition to towards a clean energy future. Vulnerable people in the US–including frontline workers, low-income families, women, immigrants, and people of color–are feeling the impact of longstanding systemic inequalities now more than ever. These Americans are our future and must be the backbone of our economic recovery.

Fossil fuel companies don’t need a leg up. The ReWIND Act offers Congress a concrete opportunity to put people first.

Call your members of Congress at (202) 224-3121 and urge them to join the ReWIND Act as a cosponsor to stand with working peoplenot big pollutersand to push for its inclusion in the next COVID-19 stimulus package.

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