New report quantifies subsidies to oil and gas

Written by dkoplow Posted: 05/25/2011 10:25 AM EDT

With pressure building in Congress to strip out at least the most obvious subsidies to oil and gas, Taxyapers for Common Sense has released a new tally of some of the major ones.  The report is useful in providing updated cost estimates, and for going beyond the narrow set of provisions that the legislation has targeted.  For example, they pick up the billions in losses due to negligence by the Minerals Management Service in structuring lease contracts for 1998 and 1999 that resulted in taxpayers getting no royalties at all for massive quantities of oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico. 

There are some areas where I disagree with how provisions are characterized, however.

VEETC.  The single largest subsidy tagged in the report is the volumetric ethanol excise tax credit.  The arguments I've seen presented to include this as a subsidy to oil rather than to ethanol have been that (a) the subsidy is paid at the point of blending, and the blenders are often oil companies; and (b) the subsidy is totally unnecessary since blenders would have been required to use the ethanol anyway under the Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS).  The RFS mandate use of pre-set levels of ethanol in the nation's motor fuel supply. 

Both arguments are inaccurate.

  • Regardless of what point in the value chain the credit is earned, it is earned only for using ethanol and skews markets towards this input rather than other blending agents or fuel extenders.  The economic incidence of any subsidy (who ends up with the improved economic returns) often differs from the point of payment, and often shifts over time as the relative market power of different parts of the value chain shift.  But the policy clearly provides government payments for using ethanol, not oil.  
  • It is true that the tax credit and the RFS are, indeed, duplicative.  But this duplication plays out through the price system.  The larger the tax credit, the lower the incremental cost (as measured by the trading price of a compliance unit under the mandate called a "Renewable Identification Number" or "RIN") will trade for.  Proper accounting for ethanol subsidies would be the sum of subsidies under the RFS and the credit (plus other policies as well).  All of these support the use of ethanol.  But the existence of dual systems merely means the full subsidy cost needed to reach the mandated level of consumption is split between taxpayer costs (through the credit) and consumer costs (through RIN prices pushed through into fuel prices).  It does not mean that the entire credit is a windfall to oil companies.

LIFO.  Last-in first-out accounting is one of a range of inventory accounting methods allowed to all industries under US law.  During times of rising prices (including those due to inflation), LIFO approaches result in higher near-term tax deductions.  During times of falling prices, first-in last-out (FIFO) results in higher near-term deductions.  With flat prices it doesn't matter much.  Over a longer period of time, the tax impacts of large past price surges begin to subside.

Thus, during a run-up in oil prices LIFO will provide large benefits, but if prices stay high for awhile the benefits to the Treasury from banning LIFO will diminish because more and more of the investory will have been procured at the new, higher prices.  Estimates of the tax savings from eliminating LIFO in oil and gas were done during a time of rising prices, and reflected the time window during which the changes in tax revenues were highest.  However, this is a short-term surge, not one that will result in continued higher revenues, year-in and year-out.  In constrast, overdue reforms such as eliminating the silly percentage depletion rules would generate recurring subsidy reductions.

LIFO may well fall in order for the US to comply with international accounting standards (which bar LIFO), but I don't consider it a subsidy to any one sector today.

The other two "general" tax subsidies TCS listed were the Manufacturing Tax Deduction for Oil and Gas Companies and Deductions for Foreign Tax Credits that are really related to resource payments.  I believe there are strong arguments for at least substantial portions of both of these programs to be counted as subsidies to oil and gas, and would actually favor including that portion within the primary list of subsidies to the industry (TCS has included these in a separate table).  More on the Manufacturing Tax Deduction here.

The TCS report did not cover all subsidies to oil and gas.  Among those left are large subsidies to bulk transport of oil via our inland waterway system, subsidized financing and operation of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, oil defense, a variety of other accelerated depreciation provision for oil and gas infrastructure, and massive shortfalls in fuel tax collections to finance the nation's interstate highway system.  Thus, I expect that even with the adjustments noted above, the aggregate subsidy levels to oil and gas would be higher, not lower, than what they have reported.