The Obama administration is proposing significant changes in US corporate taxes, as reported in today’s Wall St. Journal. If enacted, the corporate tax rate would fall from 35% of income to 28%, although the elimination of numerous tax incentives would subject many companies, including most in the energy sector, to higher taxes overall. On the surface, this looks like the kind of tax reform that has been long overdue; however, as always with such efforts, the details matter enormously. In this case, the details would create an even less-level playing field for US energy producers, while doubling down on the expensive tax benefits currently provided to favored sectors and technologies. It’s ironic that this is being proposed just when rising gasoline prices have put the administration on the defensive concerning its energy policies. It will do the President little good to point to increasing US oil production—demonstrably the result of energy prices and policies in previous administrations–if he simultaneously jeopardizes that recovery in output by making it less attractive to produce oil and gas here.
The basic principle of cutting marginal corporate tax rates in exchange for the elimination of “tax expenditures”, or loopholes, in common parlance, is consistent with the much broader tax reform proposed by the fiscal commission established by the White House in 2010, even if the administration has opted for the upper end of the range of tax rates suggested by Simpson-Bowles. In general, US oil and gas companies wouldn’t be worse off for losing the various deductions and tax credits in the current tax code, if the marginal tax rate were reduced sufficiently and if the administration weren’t proposing to raise royalty rates on US onshore production by 50% at the same time. However, the combination of the proposed changes, including subjecting part of their non-US income to US taxation, would not only make US oil and gas projects less attractive, relative to projects in other countries; they would also make it less attractive to be a US oil and gas company, instead of a non-US company that operates here. For an administration that is concerned about US competitiveness, this is perverse logic, indeed.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that the combination of higher corporate taxes on energy companies, higher royalties, and the more complex permitting processes instituted by the administration even before the Deepwater Horizon accident will make it much harder to sustain the recent recovery in US oil output beyond the completion of projects that were initiated during the previous administration. New oil and gas production would probably still be profitable here after these changes, particularly if oil prices remain as high as they are now, but company portfolios would begin to shift back towards non-US projects that look more rewarding by comparison, and US companies would lose some of their edge to non-US competitors. None of that would be good for US energy consumers, considering that the oil and gas industry accounts for 62% of the energy we use, including 49% of all energy produced domestically.
Of course, the administration’s tax proposals reach well beyond oil and gas. Among other things, they would extend the Production Tax Credit for wind energy by another year, through 2013, as well as extending for another year the Treasury renewable energy cash grants that expired at the end of last year. After 2012, the cash grants would be replaced by refundable tax credits, which essentially means you’d get a check from the IRS, rather than from the Treasury, if the credit were larger than the taxes your firm owes. The net effect of the latter would perpetuate a costly system of renewable energy subsidies that reward the deployment of renewable energy hardware, rather than the actual generation of renewable energy. (That distinction is important whenever the hardware is installed somewhere lacking in good wind, sun, or other renewable resources.)
Then there’s the proposal to boost the electric vehicle tax credit to a maximum of $10,000 per car, and to shift the recipient from the purchaser to the seller. That circumvents the problem that under the current $7,500 credit you’d have to earn enough income to be paying at least that much in federal income taxes, in order to enjoy the full benefit of the credit. However, it also makes it much likelier that manufacturers and dealers would pocket a significant slice of the higher credit, instead of consumers. Since it was nearly impossible to justify the $7,500 per car credit on the basis of actual oil or emissions savings, the higher credit looks even less justifiable, other than as a means of raising the odds of achieving the President’s arbitrary target of putting a million EVs on the road by 2015–another near impossibility. The pluses I see here include an automatic phaseout based on time, rather than sales volume, and a broadening of the credit to cover other efficient vehicle technologies such as natural gas, though it’s not clear whether it would also cover advanced diesels. Still, if the President has his way, we’ll be spending more than $10 billion to put vehicles on the road that will save less than 35,000 barrels per day of oil, or about 0.4% of our total gasoline consumption, along with greenhouse gas emissions worth less than $1 billion at market prices–even European market prices.
The proposals include other provisions that would affect the energy sector, including tax benefits for advanced energy manufacturing such as wind turbines, solar panels, advanced batteries, electric vehicles, and an array of other equipment. I’d be much happier with those incentives if they were provided as an alternative to origin-blind deployment incentives, instead of alongside them. And although oil and gas companies would lose the manufacturing tax deduction on their US production, it appears they might get to keep that deduction on US refining, which has been hurt by higher oil prices. That would be small consolation to independent refining companies that have been forced to close several large east coast refineries or that are barely breaking even.
If President Obama is serious about tax reform, the current proposals–flawed as they are–would have carried a lot more weight had they been introduced a year ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Simpson-Bowles report and various other tax reform suggestions, rather than in an election year. And if he is truly serious about the”all-out, all-of-the-above strategy” for energy that he referenced in this year’s State of the Union address, the current proposals look like an extremely odd way to execute that, favoring as heavily as they do sources that account for less than 2% of US energy production, while penalizing those that contribute nearly half. The good news is that this is a meal that won’t be eaten hot. For now, this package serves as another plank in the reelection campaign platform. Whether it will ultimately be implemented depends not just on who occupies the White House after January 20, 2013, but also on the composition of the next Congress.