US fossil fuel giants set for a coronavirus bailout bonanza

Fossil fuel companies and coal-powered utilities in the US are set for a potential bonanza under federal government plans for a bond bailout, part of the rescue package for the coronavirus crisis.

At least 90 fossil fuel companies, many of them established giants such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and Koch Industries, stand to gain from the Federal Reserve’s coronavirus bond buyback programme, alongside more than 150 utilities including coal-heavy firms such as American Electric Power and Duke Energy, according to a new analysis.

The bond buyback scheme is expected to be worth at least $750bn (£605bn) altogether and to benefit thousands of companies by the end of September, and the size of the payout that could go to fossil fuels and utilities is as yet unknown. The scheme is to be discussed in the US Senate on Tuesday.

Jason Disterhoft, a senior campaigner at Rainforest Action Network, which conducted the study, said public money should be used to bail out companies only with strict conditions attached. “Our concern is that these recovery funds should be prioritising people and communities and they are going instead to big companies to pay down their debts,” he said.

Ten out of the top 40 fracking companies would be eligible to apply, according to the analysis, which examined all US fossil fuel companies and energy utilities to check whether they would qualify under the published scheme rules. It is not known whether any of these companies will apply for the support, though many are expected to do so.

Established giants such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and Koch Industries stand to gain from the Federal Reserve’s coronavirus bond buyback programme.

Established giants such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and Koch Industries stand to gain from the Federal Reserve’s coronavirus bond buyback programme. Photograph: Éric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images

The plunge in oil prices has thrown oil companies into disarray, while dropping energy use because of the crisis has also had an impact on coal-fired power plants and utilities.

“The recovery is a choice between propping up the fragile fossil fuel industry and building the resilient green economy we need. The list of who is eligible for the Fed’s massive bond purchase programmes, including struggling frackers, coal companies and supermajors, shows what’s at stake,” said Disterhoft.

“Recovery funds have to go to workers and environmental clean-up first, not bonuses or dividends, and companies should be required to stop expanding fossil fuels and phase out their fossil business – otherwise we’re just lighting public money on fire and locking in the coming climate crash into the bargain.”

A separate study last week by economists and Oxford University found that putting public money into a green recovery would produce higher economic returns and create more jobs in both the short and longer term than pouring the same money into the current fossil fuel economy.

Experts and campaigners around the world have called for governments to focus the recovery on greener growth as a way to generate jobs, revive the global economy and prevent greenhouse gas emissions from rising further as the pandemic subsides.

To be eligible for the Federal Reserve scheme – which is to be administered by BlackRock, the asset manager that this year pledged to shift its investment strategy to take account of the climate crisis – companies must have had a BBB-Baa3 or higher credit rating as of 22 March.

There are moves to change the rules to allow companies that had such a credit rating earlier, on 5 March, to apply. According to the analysis, this would allow another oil and gas company, Occidental Petroleum, to qualify.


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