Demonstrators in New York protest the mistreatment of Puerto Rico following Hurricane MariaDemonstrators in New York protest the mistreatment of Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

When the House and Senate finally agreed to a longer-term spending package last week, it approved nearly $90 billion in disaster relief to the parts of the country devastated by hurricanes and wildfires last year, ending a months-long struggle to help communities recover.

The bill also brought more tax breaks, however, for energy companies, which come on the heels of the tax reform package passed late last year that Barclays equities analysts estimated will add $1 billion to the profits of the U.S. oil and gas companies. ExxonMobil said it gained $5.9 billion from the tax cut, which boosted its fourth-quarter profits fivefold. Chevron reported a $2.02 billion windfall related to U.S. tax reform.

The contrast could not be more stark, say many climate advocates: while the country deepens its financial support for the industry that is the overwhelming driver of climate change, it leaves the victims of climate change impacts hoping for small measures of relief after disaster strikes; relief that they pay for with their own tax dollars.

“Heartbreaking. Hurricane Maria was a climate disaster, and we’re still finding out just how deadly it was,” a spokesperson for the climate advocacy group said on Friday. “Puerto Rico deserves justice. And the fossil fuel billionaires who helped create this crisis should pay.”  

According to NOAA, there were 16 distinct billion-dollar weather disasters in 2017, with total losses exceeding $306 billion, nearly $100 billion more than the next most expensive year, 2005 (Katrina). In October, Congress authorized a $36.5 billion disaster aid package, though one preliminary estimate pegged the total damages from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria alone at $300 billion. The $90 billion approved on Friday will be split among communities devastated not just by those hurricanes but also rampant wildfires in the West.

Attributing hurricane damage to climate change is a difficult but emerging area of research. With Harvey, for example, scientists were able attribute 15 to 40 percent (8 to 24 inches) of the epic rain to fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas emissions. While climate change did not “cause” all the billion dollar disasters in 2017, most of the carnage was aggravated in some way by climate change and the fossil fuel emissions that cause it in the first place.

Hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico alone is estimated to cost upwards of $95 billion. The Puerto Rican government has requested $94.4 billion in federal disaster relief assistance.  More than a quarter of Puerto Ricans remain without electricity. The island, a U.S. territory, was  already drowning in debt and was left desperate for disaster relief funding. As Climate Liability News reported in October, Puerto Rico’s only lifeline is money from the federal government.

That lifeline appears to be increasingly fraught.

Following on the heels of (erroneous) reports that FEMA would cut off food and supplies to the hurricane-ravaged island at the end of January, the Puerto Rican daily newspaper El Nuevo Dia reported that officials from FEMA and the Treasury Department determined that Puerto Rico does not qualify for an already approved loan because it has enough cash in its reserves. According to a letter from those federal government officials, Puerto Rico would be subject to a “Cash Balance Policy,” in which loan funds would be dispersed only when Puerto Rico’s “central cash balance decreases to a certain level.”

In the letter, the FEMA and Treasury Dept. officials note that Puerto Rico’s central cash balance “has consistently exceeded $1.5 billion in the months following the hurricanes.” Puerto Rico had been promised a $4.9 billion loan in a disaster relief package passed by Congress in October. But now the Cash Balance Policy means that loan may never materialize.

“The administration of President Donald Trump, through FEMA, is extorting the people of Puerto Rico and our government so that it submits itself even further to the federal control board and new austerity measures,” said Puerto Rico Rep. Luis Vega Ramos.

As a recent Newsday editorial puts it, “the federal response has been scandalously inadequate…President Donald Trump obscenely overstated the island’s recovery when he visited in October and squabbled with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz as she and others asked for more aid.”

While the federal government fails to come up with the relief funding Puerto Rico needs, the Republican-led Congress worked quickly to pass a tax bill that provided a large windfall to corporations like Exxon. The tax bill windfalls are in addition to the $14.7 billion in annual federal subsidies the fossil fuel industry already receives.

“There’s likely a huge impact in terms of overall lowering the corporate taxes that the fossil fuel industry can disproportionately benefit from,” said Oil Change International policy director Janet Redman, who studies taxpayer handouts to the fossil fuel industry.

“The recent changes to the U.S. corporate tax rate coupled with smarter regulation create an environment for future capital investments and will further enhance ExxonMobil’s competitiveness around the world. We’re actively evaluating the impact of the lower tax rate on the economics of several other projects currently in the planning stages to further expand our facilities along the Gulf Coast,” Exxon CEO Darren Woods wrote in a recent blog post on the company’s website.

While Big Oil benefits from federal subsidies and lower tax rates, Puerto Rico gets slapped with a new excise tax. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act contains a provision that imposes an excise tax on imported foreign goods, and Puerto Rico is considered “foreign” under the tax code.

Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), quoted in the Washington Post, said the excise tax “will visit another Hurricane on Puerto Rico—an economic hurricane.”

“Let us be clear. The new tax law discriminates against Puerto Rico, removing the special incentives that the island relied on and treating Puerto Rico as a foreign country,” Velázquez said in addressing Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in a recent hearing.

From withholding disaster relief loans to imposing a new tax on the island, the Trump administration’s treatment towards Puerto Rico continues to draw criticism. As fossil fuel corporations enjoy billions in tax savings, more than a million Puerto Ricans remain literally in the dark, seemingly left to fend for themselves in the wake of a devastating disaster that is marked with the fingerprints of fossil fuel-driven climate change.

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