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By Robert Rapier on Apr 24, 2006 with no responses

Taxing "Windfall Profits"

I have a few essays in the queue (including a nifty biodiesel story), but I thought I would comment on an article in today’s Deseret News out of Salt Lake City. The article was entitled “Will U.S. Slap Tax on Big Oil Profits?”. (1) A few excerpts from the article, followed by my comments:

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter said Sunday that the U.S. Congress should consider taxing the “windfall profits” reaped by oil companies as a result of surging crude oil prices.

I understand the frustration with high gas prices even as oil companies rake in record profits. But what is Specter trying to accomplish? Does the good senator believe this will magically bring the price of oil down? Will it cause OPEC to open the taps, flooding more oil into the market? Or is the real purpose to punish oil companies for making money, so he can boast about it during his reelection bid? Would he stipulate that the money be allocated to somehow reducing our demand for oil, which is the real issue?

Specter, of Pennsylvania, earlier this month introduced legislation to strengthen antitrust enforcement of the oil and natural gas industry to counter the consolidation of production and refining operations. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is proposing a 50 percent excise tax on profits from oil sold at more than $40 a barrel.

Let’s think about that for a moment. A lot of oil is expensive to extract, and only becomes economically viable as oil prices climb higher and higher. As oil prices climb, the incentive to pump more oil increases. If more oil can actually be pumped, it should eventually result in an oversupply situation, and prices will come back down. (This is why the oil industry is cyclical). If more oil can’t be pumped, then prices won’t come down.

However, neither situation is helped by slapping a tax on oil over $40 a barrel. In fact, such moves decrease the reward for marginal producers, which may lead them to shut in production. Since foreign producers won’t be paying that tax, what do you think is going to happen? U.S. production will decrease further, imports will increase, and oil prices will remain high. If high oil prices are the objective, then this is a way to accomplish that objective.

“Windfall profits, eliminating the antitrust exemption, considering the excessive concentration of power are all items we ought to be addressing,” Specter said Sunday on CNN’s “Late Edition” program. “Anybody up for election this year ought to be working very hard, taking it very seriously.”

Oh, I bet they are. That’s why they ignore the real reasons for rising oil prices, and aren’t doing anything to address those issues. They are posturing and pandering, trying to make sure they get themselves reelected. The founding fathers would be rolling over in their graves if they saw the level of mediocrity that permeates our government today. Nobody has the guts to stand up and tell the truth.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said President Bush should call oil company executives to the White House and tell them he’ll support a new tax on their profits unless they lower prices.

“I’ll bet that the price of gasoline would come down within a matter of days,” Levin said on the CNN program. “We need a windfall profits tax because these profits have been absolutely obscene.”

Wow! Is Levin this uninformed? Does he think oil company executives set the price of oil? Does he not understand that oil is a global commodity, and if China or India are willing to pay more for oil than we are, then that is going to drive the prices up? That’s sort of like asking a company to lower the value of their stock, because you want to buy some, but think it’s too expensive. It’s the price it is because that’s what buyers and sellers in the open market have agreed upon for a value. Oil company executives do not set the price of oil. This only happens in politician’s dreams.

Bush, in California over the weekend to promote his initiative on alternative fuels, said a lack of refining capacity in the United States and the thirst for oil in emerging economies such as China and India are contributing to increased energy costs. He said he recognized the price of gasoline is hurting consumers and warned that the price is likely to go higher.

Like him or hate him, Bush is correct about this. I bet even the good senators would agree with this. So, let’s pose a question. A lack of refining capacity is a problem that is putting a lot of pressure on gasoline prices. Expanding refineries takes lots of capital. If we extract more money from the oil companies in the form of punitive taxes, are they likely to spend more money or less money on capital projects? Now, is this likely to make the refining bottleneck better, or worse? Again, if your goal is to have gas shortages and drive the prices even higher, then they are on the right track. Like I have said before, we tried this already and it didn’t work. (2) From a 1990 Congressional Research Service report:

“The windfall profits tax reduced domestic oil production between 3 and 6 percent, and increased oil imports from between 8 and 16 percent. This made the U.S. more dependent upon imported oil.”

This report should be required reading for legislators who think a windfall profits tax is a good idea.

Specter has focused his attention on oil industry consolidation and competition. “We have allowed too many companies to get together to reduce competition,” he said.

There were more than 2,600 mergers in the oil industry in the 1990s, according to James Wells, director of natural resources and the environment for the Government Accountability Office. A study by the GAO, Congress’ research arm, found that concentration of market power may have added as much as 7 cents to the price of fuel, he said.

As much as 7 cents? I think Senator Specter has identified the culprit. Gasoline prices are “as much as” 7 cents higher than they would be had they stopped those mergers. This is clearly the source of spiraling gas prices. If it was “as much as” 7 cents, I wonder what the lower estimate was. It really sounds like Specter is on a wild goose chase.

While politicians pander, I am still waiting for someone in government to have the guts to suggest that a potential solution to this problem is to encourage Americans, somehow, to conserve. I am waiting for someone to explain that cheap oil is not an American birthright, and as long as China and India compete for the same oil, there will be no more “cheap” oil. Of course more expensive oil will enforce conservation eventually. Maybe the politicians are much smarter than I think, and this is part of the plan. If we adopt the policies they are advocating, oil prices will spiral out of control, gas will no longer be affordable, and we will finally start conserving. Maybe there is a method to their apparent madness.


1. “Will U.S. Slap Tax on Big Oil Profits?”, Deseret News, April 24, 2006.

2. Glassman, James K., “Windfall Profits” Tax on Oil Companies, Capitalism Magazine, September 26, 2005.