Oil and Gas Tax Breaks:
$2.4 billion a year
excerpted from the book
Take the Rich Off Welfare
by Mark Zepezauer and Arthur
Odonian Press, 1996
Oil and Gas Tax Breaks: $2.4
billion a year
Like the percentage depletion allowance
just described, the oil depletion allowance lets certain companies
deduct 15% of the gross income they derive from oil and gas wells
from their taxable incomes, and continue to do that for as long
as those wells are still producing. Some smaller companies get
to increase the deduction by 1% for every dollar the price of
oil falls below $20 a barrel.
This tax break, on which we lose about
$1 billion a year, can add up to many times the cost of the original
exploration and drilling. In fact, it formerly could amount to
100% of the company's profits-in which case the company paid no
taxes, no matter how much money it made. Presently this is capped
at 65% of profits.
The rationale for this loophole is that
it encourages exploration for new oil-presumably something no
oil company would otherwise do. Oil industry executives argue
that other businesses are allowed to depreciate the costs of their
manufacturing investments. That's true, but they're only allowed
to take off the actual cost of those assets, not deduct 15% of
their gross income virtually forever.
Introduced in 1926, the oil depletion
allowance was restricted in 1975 to independent oil companies
that don't refine or import oil. To make up for this, the larger,
integrated companies were given the intangible drilling cost deduction,
which in some ways is even better.
It lets them deduct 70% of the cost of
setting up a drilling operation in the year those expenses occur,
rather than having to depreciate them over the expected life of
the well. The other 30% they can take off over the next five years.
This boondoggle costs us about $500 million a year.
A third tax break is the enhanced oil
recovery credit. It encourages oil companies to go after reserves
that are more expensive to extract-like those that have nearly
been depleted, or that contain especially thick crude oil. The
net effect of this credit, which costs us $500 million a year,
is that we pay almost twice as much for gasoline made from domestic
oil as we do for gas made from foreign oil.
Together, these three loopholes sometimes
exceed 100% of the value of the energy produced by that oil. In
other words, it would be cheaper in some cases for the government
to just buy gasoline from the companies and give it to taxpayers
free of charge.
(Of course, without the tax breaks, the
oil companies would charge more for gasoline, bringing our prices
closer to other countries'. This would undoubtedly lower our per
capita consumption of gasoline, which is currently the highest
in the world.)
There's a fourth tax break we can't count
because we can't estimate its size; for details on it, see the
section on "master limited partnerships" in the chapter
called What we've left out. But miscellaneous smaller tax breaks
and subsidies add an additional $400 million a year to the oil
industry's wealthfare, which brings the total to $2.4 billion.
Instead of throwing $2.4 billion a year
at the oil companies, we could encourage them to cut down on waste
during production and transport. Each year, the equivalent of
a thousand Exxon Valdez spills is lost due to inefficient refining,
leaking wells and storage tanks, spills at oil fields and from
tankers and pipelines, evaporative losses, un-recycled motor oil
and the like.
The current oil and gas tax breaks encourage
the use of fossil fuels at the expense of cleaner alternatives,
reward drilling in environmentally sensitive areas like wetlands
and estuaries, and artificially attract to the oil industry investment
money that could be used more productively in other areas of the
the Rich Off Welfare