Obama's Upside-Down Energy Logic

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Although President Obama has repeatedly called for America to achieve "energy independence," his proposals to raise taxes on domestic oil and gas producers would have precisely the opposite effect. They would, if approved by Congress, make the country more dependent, not less, on imported oil.

Prudently, the president might also acknowledge that achieving “independence” is both unlikely and undesirable, and that America’s economy benefits from all imports, including imported oil.

Days after Mr. Obama’s inauguration, the new president declared, “It will be the policy of my administration to reverse our dependence on foreign oil while building a new energy economy that will create millions of jobs.”

Yet in the 2010 Budget that he sent to Congress earlier this month, Mr. Obama specifically seeks to raise taxes on domestic oil exploration by $31 billion over 10 years, a larger tax increase than on any other industry. In addition, oil and gas producers would bear a disproportionately heavy share of other tax increases on business, more than $320 billion.

The ostensible rationale for these tax hikes is that the current tax system “distorts markets by encouraging more investment in the oil and gas industry than would occur under a neutral system. To the extent expensing encourages overproduction of oil and gas, it is detrimental to long-term energy security…” This reasoning is repeated eight times in the Treasury Department’s Green Book, a description of proposed spending and revenue changes in the budget.

No mention anywhere in the Budget of the distortion of the $60 billion in expenditures in the stimulus bill to “reduce dependence on foreign oil and create long-term, sustainable economic growth in the green industries of the future.” Subsidies for renewable energy, only four percent of America’s energy supply, and more than would occur under a neutral system, are acceptable to President Obama. But a tax structure that encourages the production of oil, 39 percent of America’s energy share, is termed “detrimental.”

Mr. Obama’s proposals include increasing effective income tax rates on oil and gas to levels higher than for other manufacturing industries; disallowing “write-offs” for certain types of extraction equipment and exploration methods; levying a new excise tax on Gulf of Mexico oil and gas; and taxing carbon emissions through a “cap and trade” program.

If America is to reduce use of imported fuels, it needs to raise domestic production as well as to conserve. This increases our long-term energy security, rather than harming it. Every single additional barrel of oil produced in America is one barrel fewer that we need to import—and as we produce more at home, we employ American workers and produce revenues for all Americans.

No one knows the full extent of American oil and natural gas reserves, and to move towards energy independence, it pays to be looking. In 2007 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, equivalent to 33 billion barrels of oil, about 18 years of U.S. oil production, were found in the Haynesville Shale rock formation in northern Louisiana. Texas, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania are also home to new gas fields. New optimism about gas reserves and production has been pushing prices down. With the fuel there, why discourage production with new taxes?

Rather than leading towards energy independence, Mr. Obama’s proposals would drive oil and gas production abroad and make American oil and gas uncompetitive in a global market. The levies would punish domestic American companies and benefit countries with large reserves such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia. Does Mr. Obama really want these countries, all under fire for their neglect of human rights, to get richer at our expense?

Until America has technology to operate its 250 million motor vehicles without gasoline and natural gas, we need more domestic exploration, not less. At some point, maybe later this year, maybe in 2010, our economy is going to shift to post-recession recovery, and oil and gas consumption are going to rise. We want to avoid $5 gasoline and sky-high home heating bills.

Although Congress is spending billions of dollars to create jobs and promote energy independence, President Obama wants to deny access to development of our own oil and gas resources in some of the most geologically promising areas available, and to increase the tax costs of developing these resources.

This is upside down logic. If enacted by Congress, it would make us less secure.

Congress might succeed in imposing draconian efficiency standards on automobiles and appliances; requiring electric utility output that comes from renewable sources—wind, solar, geothermal, biomass—to rise from 4 percent now to 25 percent in 2025; and mandating greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 that are 17 percent of 2005 levels. (Whether Congress could enforce such wildly optimistic goals is a question.)

Americans might become greater conservationists, prodded by guilt or by higher energy taxes. But even if they do, they will still need oil and natural gas for driving, home heating, and electricity generation for many years to come. If Mr. Obama is serious about pursuing energy independence, he should withdraw his proposals to increase taxes on domestic oil and gas production.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @FurchtgottRoth.   

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