Big Oil, Big Profits, Big Tax Breaks

Big Oil, Big Profits, Big Tax Breaks
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Incoming Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and outgoing House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, continue to express interest in comprehensive tax reform. As precious legislative days fly by in 2014, prospects for action remain uncertain. There is, however, one simple tax reform that Congress should pass right away that would make the federal tax code fairer and reduce the deficit with almost no impact on the economy: end special tax breaks for the five biggest oil companies.

The oil industry has prospered over the past decade, thanks to high oil and gasoline prices. The five largest companies -- BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell -- earned more than $1 trillion during this time. In the first nine months of 2013, these five companies realized a combined $71 billion in profits. Certainly, these companies can prosper without $2.4 billion in annual special tax breaks.

The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that three tax preferences provide $24 billion per decade in annual benefits to these five companies. The “limitation on Section 199 deduction,” designed to encourage domestic manufacturing to remain on shore, costs the Treasury $14.4 billion per decade for these five companies. The foreign tax credit deduction saves the big three domestic oil companies $7.5 billion per decade. The “intangible drilling costs” deduction saved the five companies another $2 billion.

The oil industry insists that these breaks are essential for job creation. However, a forthcoming analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics and oil company data by my colleague Mari Hernandez finds that the combined U.S. employment by BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell declined by 10 percent between 2007 to 2012. She also investigated the American Petroleum Institute’s contention that it provides millions of jobs. She discovered that nearly half of all direct jobs in the oil and gas industry are for service station employees. In 2013 there were slightly more than 1 million workers directly employed in drilling, operations, refining, and other similar jobs.

As the Washington Post explains, oil industry profits do not translate into huge job growth:

Oil and gas are industries where a huge portion of the economic output created comes not from the labors of individual oilmen or even the machines they are operating, but from a scarce substance that happens to be located below the ground.

The big oil companies claim that they pay a huge amount of taxes, but an investigation by Reuters found that companies pay far lower federal effective tax rates than advertised:

The industry lumps together U.S. and foreign taxes. It includes taxes that are deferred and thus not paid yet. U.S. companies must pay taxes on profits earned abroad, but they can defer these taxes until they bring the cash into the country.

Reuters estimates that Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil paid effective federal tax rates of 19 percent, 18 percent, and 13 percent, respectively, in 2011. Reuters noted that this is “a far cry from the 35 percent top corporate tax rate.”

The oil and gas industry has been the largest beneficiary of federal financial support in the energy sector. An analysis by the Nuclear Energy Institute found that it benefited from nearly 60 percent of all federal energy support between 1950 and 2010, including receiving half of the money from energy tax breaks. Meanwhile, the wind and solar energy industries received only 9 percent of total federal benefits.

The Senate and House agriculture committees recently agreed to cut $9 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (often referred to as food stamps). This will eliminate vital food assistance for millions of low-income people, many of whom are working families, veterans, and children. Seniors and people with disabilities will also lose support. In addition to the human cost, these cuts will lead to significant jobs losses because SNAP provides a substantial benefit to the economy.

Congress will make this and other harmful budget cuts in the name of austerity. It makes little economic sense, and is morally wrong, to contemporaneously maintain $24 billion for a decade’s worth of tax breaks for five of the most profitable companies in the world. Sen. Wyden and Rep. Camp should reform the tax code by eliminating special tax breaks for BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell.

This would shift some of the burden of deficit reduction from middle- and low-income families to these big oil companies. They can afford it.

Daniel J. Weiss is a senior fellow and the director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress.

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