Environmentalists and green activists have tried to regulate fossil fuels to death for decades and replace them with green, “clean” energy solutions. Despite all their efforts, the industry as a whole has had limited success. What many fail to notice, however, is that the green energy lobby is doing more damage to its cause than the coal or oil lobbies ever could.

Despite generous government funding and favorable regulations, the green energy industry has come up short on results. In fact, many green energy efforts, like ethanol, have done more harm than good.

U.S. energy subsidies, spending, tax breaks, and loan guarantees had increased to $37.2 billion in 2010, according to the Energy Department. But the market advantages of fossil fuels have led to a laundry list of clean-energy failures. In 2011, the federal government spent $24 billion on energy subsidies while the fossil-fuel industry received just $2.5 billion in tax breaks.

Immense amounts of money have gone to projects through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado, a government funded entity that has the power to decide which green initiatives live and die. NREL has offered many useless enterprises over the years, including the now bankrupt Abound Solar, but their role in promoting ethanol has been one of their most notably expensive failures.

study by Michigan State University shows ethanol is substantially more expensive to make than gasoline and must be sold at a loss or subsidized unless consumers are willing to make up the difference. Though ethanol is a cleaner-burning fuel than traditional gasoline, the volume of emissions it reduces is not significant. The largest, most fatal flaw in this fuel source is that it takes more energy to produce than it releases.

The mandated use of ethanol as a partial substitute for gasoline was projected to decrease oil imports and to be environmentally friendly, but the program has failed on both fronts. Furthermore, the amount of corn ethanol needed to make any difference in oil imports would threaten our food supply, take up massive amounts of land and destroy forests.

While most public companies would fold after a boondoggle like this, NREL’s budget has grown steadily to $536 million as a beneficiary of the stimulus act. Taxpayer dollars fund the salary of NREL’s top executive who makes close to a million dollars and, despite record federal debt and bankruptcies, other executives enjoy generous pay packages and benefits.

As the green energy lobby decries the excesses and evils of Big Oil and Wall Street, they conveniently overlook the failures among their own. In times of economic struggle for the nation, the clean energy industry has used federal grants as a slush fund and lacked transparency and accountability. Those who want to achieve energy independence and cut carbon emissions should focus on more promising solutions like nuclear and natural gas. They may not be as “cool” as solar or wind, but they’re a lot more practical and affordable.  

For activists who want to achieve truly clean energy and an end to a system of government favoritism, they can start by cleaning up in their own back yard.

Jason Stverak is the President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity