Ted Turner wants a level playing field for American energy, and he’s determined to be heard. The business icon took great care to point out the gulf between the amount of federal subsidies received by the renewable energy sector compared to the fossil fuel industry. Turner made his comments while attending an event he and T. Boone Pickens headlined at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Turner was asked whether a joint solar venture by he and Southern Company would require federal subsidies. Turner said the project would need subsidies and added, “Right now, the government subsidizes coal and oil big time. Over the years they have gotten all sorts of economic subsidies, and wind and solar and geothermal are not being subsidized because they weren’t in line to get a spot in a feed trough.”

The feed trough, as Turner put it, is quite large when it comes to fossil fuels. Between 2002 and 2008, the Energy Information Administration reports that more than $70 billion in federal assistance has gone to traditional fossil fuels, while $12.2 billion has gone to traditional renewables. Traditional renewables, as a category, are trailing the amount tagged for ethanol subsidies by $4 billion. You can see the breakdown in the chart below: 

Government subsidies for different energy sources

There's also carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which eat up about $2.3 billion worth of government assistance. CCS, which is still an emerging technology, would theoretically allow for the capturing of emissions from burning coal and storing it. The trick, of course, is making it economical, and without a price on carbon, it’s increasingly hard to do that. Nonetheless, CCS is still not included in the renewable category. For comparison sake, combining the renewable, carbon capture and ethanol categories would still only amount to less than half of the subsidies that the traditional fossil fuel sector gets as a whole.

This disparity has led Turner and others to cry foul. Essentially, Turner and friends want to invest in renewables, but have had to defend asking for subsidies against attacks that renewable energy isn’t cost-effective. It’s an ironic statement, especially when it comes from someone in the heavily subsidized traditional fossil fuel industry.

A good example: Pickens, a career oil and gas tycoon, sat just feet from Turner while openly campaigning for a bill that would call for a huge government loan to companies that transition their vehicles to natural gas.

“In a totally level playing field wind, solar and geothermal have a much better chance than they do with all the subsidies stacked up on the other side of the fossil fuels. They are subsidizing the wrong thing,” Turner said.

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