What Would Jefferson Do?

The Historical Role of Federal Subsidies in Shaping America's Energy Future

September 15, 2011

This paper frames the ongo­ing debate about the appro­pri­ate size and scope of fed­er­al sub­si­dies to the ener­gy sec­tor with­in the rich his­tor­i­cal con­text of U.S. ener­gy tran­si­tions, in order to help illu­mi­nate how cur­rent ener­gy sub­si­dies com­pare to past gov­ern­ment sup­port for the sec­tor. From land grants for tim­ber and coal in the 1800s to tax expen­di­tures for oil and gas in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, from fed­er­al invest­ment in hydro­elec­tric pow­er to research and devel­op­ment fund­ing for nuclear ener­gy and today’s incen­tives for alter­na­tive ener­gy sources, America’s sup­port for ener­gy inno­va­tion has helped dri­ve our country’s growth for more than 200 years.

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