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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Energy Tax Policy: Historical Perspectives on and Current Status of Energy Tax Expenditures

Molly F. Sherlock
Analyst in Economics

Since the 1970s, energy tax policy in the United States has attempted to achieve two broad objectives. First, policymakers have sought to reduce oil import dependence and enhance national security through a variety of domestic energy investment and production tax subsidies. Second, environmental concerns have led to subsidization of a variety of renewable and energy efficiency technologies via the tax code. While these two broad goals continue to guide policy, enacted policies that solely focus on achieving only one of the goals are often inconsistent with policies solely designed to achieve the other goal. For example, subsidies to oil and gas producers, while enhancing domestic oil and gas production, encourage an activity with negative environmental consequences.

By providing a longitudinal perspective on energy tax policy and expenditures, this report examines how current revenue losses resulting from energy tax provisions compare to historical losses and provides a foundation for understanding how current energy tax policy evolved. Further, this report compares the relative value of tax incentives given to fossil fuels, renewables, and energy efficiency. Recent legislation has introduced, reintroduced, expanded, and extended a number of energy tax provisions. While a number of the current energy provisions have a long historical standing in the tax code, a wider variety of tax incentives, to promote a range of energy sources, are presently available than have been available in the past.

Examining trends in revenue losses associated with energy tax provisions provides insight into the actual direction of energy tax policy. In inflation-adjusted terms, revenue losses associated with energy tax provisions in the late 1970s and early 1980s are similar to revenue losses in the late 2000s. The composition of these revenue losses, however, has changed significantly. In the late 1970s nearly all revenue losses associated with energy tax provisions were the result of two tax preferences given to the oil and gas industry. In the early 1980s, revenue losses associated with special treatment for the oil and gas industry accounted for more than three quarters of all federal revenue losses associated with energy tax expenditures. Changes in policy, coupled with declining oil prices in the late 1980s, dramatically reduced revenue losses associated with oil and gas tax policy. Throughout the 1990s, the bulk of revenue losses associated with energy tax provisions were attributable to the tax credit for unconventional fuels. In the 2000s, revenue losses associated with renewable energy production incentives began to make up a larger portion of energy tax expenditure revenue losses. Revenue losses associated with tax provisions benefitting fossil fuels also remained important into the 2000s, with a large proportion of revenue losses in the mid-to-late 2000s associated with the unconventional fuel production credit, benefitting synthetic coal producers. In the late 2000s, the majority of revenue losses have been associated with incentives designed to promote alternative fuels and biofuels. By 2010, revenue losses associated with tax incentives for renewables exceeded revenue losses associated with fossil fuels. The Section 1603 grants in lieu of tax credits, made available starting in 2009, have resulted in increased federal financial support for renewables.

The federal government also loses revenue from excise tax credits given to alcohol fuel blenders (specifically, the volumetric ethanol excise tax credit (VEETC)). While excise tax credits are not technically a tax expenditure (technically, tax expenditures are only revenue losses associated with income tax provisions), these excise tax credits have played an important role in shaping energy tax policy and were estimated to result in revenue losses of $5.7 billion in 2010 alone.

Date of Report: May 2, 2011
Number of Pages: 40
Order Number: R41227
Price: $29.95

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