July 26, 2011 | Backgrounder on Energy and Environment
Abstract: Are Americans energy dependent? Yes—dependent on government energy subsidies. In 2007, American taxpayers subsidized government-preferred energy sources to the tune of nearly $17 billion. Increasingly, it is politicians in Washington who decide how Americans produce and consume energy. But subsidies for special interests stifle competition, raise energy prices, and decrease economic opportunities. It is time for Washington to eliminate all government subsidies and special policy treatments that benefit certain industries at the expense of others. Energy companies should rely on innovation and efficiency, not American taxpayers, to thrive in a system of free enterprise.
Americans are becoming too energy dependent. But it is not dependence on foreign sources of energy that is the problem; it is growing dependence on the federal government. According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States spent $8.2 billion on energy subsidies in 1999. That spending more than doubled to $16.6 billion in 2007, and with the stimulus funding and other provisions, it promises to have a much higher price tag in the years ahead. With direct expenditures, targeted tax breaks, mandates, loan guarantees, and other preferential treatment, Washington is deciding how Americans produce and consume energy. Increasing America’s access to energy resources creates competition, lowers prices, drives innovation, and creates economic opportunity. Subsidies do the opposite. Congress should make it a priority to ensure that no new subsidies are put in place and remove the ones already in place.
In public policy, subsidies come in many shapes and sizes and are thus often difficult to define comprehensively. The definition “direct transfer of money to a group or industry” is too narrow, so for the purpose of this paper, a better definition is “Using the political process to support the production or consumption of one good over another.”
Providing subsidies is bad economic policy for a number of reasons. Government support that targets one group or industry artificially props up that market. Rather than increase competition, a special endorsement from the government gives one technology an unfair price advantage over other ones. Further, subsidies reduce the incentive for that technology to become cost-competitive and encourage dependence on the preferential treatment that government gives them. Those energy sources that need help from the government are those that cannot compete economically without them. If a project makes economic sense, however, the investments will occur without the subsidy. In that case, the subsidies simply offset the private-sector investments that would have been made either way.
Another destructive feature of subsidies is that they allow Washington to direct the flow of private-sector investments. Targeted direct expenditures, tax breaks, loan guarantees, and other government subsidies allocate resources away from more competitive projects. If the government gives a tax credit to banana producers only, it shifts more labor and capital towards banana production and away from other economic activities, like strawberry or grape production. The market, not politicians in Washington, is a good determinant of how to allocate resources and meet consumer demand.
Furthermore, when the government dictates how private-sector resources are spent, those industries that benefit greatly from such policy decisions will spend more money lobbying for government handouts. The banana producers will push for tax-credit extensions. The apple producers will complain that they are at a disadvantage and lobby for their own handouts. This process results in the continuous picking of winners and losers. It is not the role of the government to determine what type of energy consumers use and using the political process to pick winners and losers distorts the marketplace and increases the incentive to energy companies to lobby for handouts. Conversely, reducing government control of the energy economy reduces the incentive to use the political process for gain.
Congress should make it a priority to prevent any new subsidization of energy sources and technologies and peel back the ones in place. Forcing sunsets of preferential tax credits and offsetting the tax increases with lower rates across the board would simplify and improve the tax code.
There has been a growth in direct energy expenditures in the United States, largely because of the more than $40 billion awarded to the Department of Energy (DOE) from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), known as the stimulus bill. Of that amount, $16.8 billion went to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). But even through its yearly budget process, the Department of Energy spends billions of dollars to fund applied-research programs. Another program the Energy Information Administration (EIA) lists as a direct expenditure is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). To prevent more direct government market distortions in the energy sector and prevent wasting taxpayer dollars, Congress should:
Special tax treatment can serve the same purpose as a subsidy by uniquely favoring one industry. Targeted tax credits divert resources to the special interests that Congress wants to succeed and moves the decision-making process away from the marketplace. This has been an increasingly attractive way for the government to award preferential treatment to certain energy industries. The number of energy tax programs expanded from 11 in 1999 to 38 in President George W. Bush’s 2007 budget. According to the EIA, tax expenditures comprise almost two-thirds of electricity subsidies. Ideally, Congress should immediately remove all distortionary energy tax policy—meaning any tax policy that picks certain industries as winners and losers in the market—and offset those repeals with a broad lower tax cut. In order to wean industries off preferential treatment, Congress should create a three-year window for all energy tax expenditures in effect. This should not include broadly available tax deductions that apply across multiple sectors. Three priorities for Congress should be:
Another way in which certain industries benefit over others relates to how companies can expense capital costs. For instance, oil and gas companies receive more generous treatment than do other industries through expensing of intangible drilling costs. A simple solution is to allow all companies, including oil and gas companies, to be able to expense their full capital costs immediately.
Immediate expensing allows companies to deduct the cost of capital purchases at the time they occur rather than deducting that cost over many years based on cumbersome depreciation schedules. Expensing is the proper treatment of capital expenditures. Depreciation raises the cost of capital and discourages companies from hiring new workers and increasing wages for existing employees. Immediate expensing for all new plant and equipment costs—for any industry or type of equipment—would allow newer equipment to come online faster, which would improve energy efficiency and overall economic efficiency.
Immediate expensing is good policy and Congress should simplify the tax code and make immediate expensing permanently available for all business investments.
The government distorts the energy market in several other ways, too—through loan guarantees, insurance programs, mandates, tariffs on imported energy, and energy sales at below-market costs. To eliminate these distortions, Congress should:
Energy industries should be freed from all government subsidies and special policy treatment that benefit certain industries at the expense of others. This would allow companies to rely on innovation and efficiency, not American taxpayers, to remain competitive and thrive in a system of free enterprise. Removing market distortions would allow resources to be allocated to their most efficient use. The industries and companies that provide the most benefit to the consumer will be the ones that are successful.—Nicolas Loris is a policy analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Nicolas Loris, “Department of Energy Spending Cuts: A Guide to Trimming President Obama’s 2012 Budget Request,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2545, April 18, 2011, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/2011/04/Department-of-Energy-Spending-Cuts-A-Guide-to-Trimming-President-Obamas-2012-Budget-Request#_ftn13.
Katherine Bradley and Robert Rector, “Confronting the Unsustainable Growth of Welfare Entitlements: Principles of Reform and the Next Steps,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2427, June 24, 2010, at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/06/confronting-the-unsustainable-growth-of-welfare-entitlements-principles-of-reform-and-the-next-steps.
Curtis Dubay, “The 2010 Tax Deal: A Chance for Congress to Lay the Groundwork for Tax Reform,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2569, June 13, 2011, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/2011/06/The-2010-Tax-Deal-A-Chance-for-Congress-to-Lay-the-Groundwork-for-Tax-Reform.
Molly Sherlock, “Energy Tax Policy: Historical Perspectives on and Current Status of Energy Tax Expenditures,” Congressional Research Service, May 2, 2011.
Energy Information Administration, “Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy Markets 2007,” April 2008, at http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/servicerpt/subsidy2/pdf/subsidy08.pdf (July 8, 2011).
For instance, some policymakers want to remove the manufacturer’s tax deduction for the oil and gas industry under the Internal Revenue Code Section 199, which applies to all domestic manufacturers, including windmill and solar-panel manufacturers. For more information, see Nicolas Loris and Curtis Dubay, “What’s an Oil Subsidy?” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3251, May 12, 2011, at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/05/whats-an-oil-subsidy.
For instance, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides a 1.8 cent-per-kilowatt-hour tax credit for advanced nuclear power produced during the first eight years of production. Congress should shorten the timeline of availability to three years of production and make the tax credit worth 1.8 cents through 2011, 1.2 cents through 2012, and 0.6 cents through 2013. In 2014, the tax credit would be no longer available.
Jack Spencer, “Nuclear Power Federal Loan Guarantees: The Next Multi-Billion Dollar Bailout?” testimony before the Domestic Policy Subcommittee, Oversight and Government Reform Committee, U.S. House of Representatives, April 20, 2010, at http://www.heritage.org/research/testimony/nuclear-power-federal-loan-guarantees-the-next-multi-billion-dollar-bailout.
For a comprehensive solution to offshore oil spill liability, see Nicolas Loris, Jack Spencer, and James Carafano, “Oil Spill Liability: A Plan for Reform,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2446, August 2, 2010, at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/08/oil-spill-liability-a-plan-for-reform.