Credit: Red Planet Cartoons
Today on the Hill, lawmakers in both parties get a second chance to strut and tut-tut as they harangue oil company executives about high gas prices–and display their abject ignorance of, and hostility towards, basic economic principles of supply and demand.
John Hinderaker at Power Line has a good rundown of the back-and-forth between the businessmen who make a living creating wealth and the politicians who tax and take it away. A few key excerpts:
The industry lineup was formidable: Robert Malone, Chairman and President of BP America, Inc.; John Hofmeister, President, Shell Oil Company; Peter Robertson, Vice Chairman of the Board, Chevron Corporation; John Lowe, Executive Vice President, Conoco Philips Company; and Stephen Simon, Senior Vice President, Exxon Mobil Corporation. Not surprisingly, the petroleum executives stole the show, as they were far smarter, infinitely better informed, and much more public-spirited than the Senate Democrats.
One theme that emerged from the hearing was the surprisingly small role played by American oil companies in the global petroleum market. John Lowe pointed out:
I cannot overemphasize the access issue. Access to resources is severely restricted in the United States and abroad, and the American oil industry must compete with national oil companies who are often much larger and have the support of their governments.
We can only compete directly for 7 percent of the world’s available reserves while about 75 percent is completely controlled by national oil companies and is not accessible.
Another theme of the day’s testimony was that, if anyone is “gouging” consumers through the high price of gasoline, it is federal and state governments, not American oil companies. On the average, 15% percent of the cost of gasoline at the pump goes for taxes, while only 4% represents oil company profits. These figures were repeated several times, but, strangely, not a single Democratic Senator proposed relieving consumers’ anxieties about gas prices by reducing taxes.
The last theme that was sounded repeatedly was Congress’s responsibility for the fact that American companies have access to so little petroleum. Shell’s John Hofmeister explained, eloquently:
While all oil-importing nations buy oil at global prices, some, notably India and China, subsidize the cost of oil products to their nation’s consumers, feeding the demand for more oil despite record prices. They do this to speed economic growth and to ensure a competitive advantage relative to other nations.
Meanwhile, in the United States, access to our own oil and gas resources has been limited for the last 30 years, prohibiting companies such as Shell from exploring and developing resources for the benefit of the American people.
Senator Sessions, I agree, it is not a free market.
According to the Department of the Interior, 62 percent of all on-shore federal lands are off limits to oil and gas developments, with restrictions applying to 92 percent of all federal lands. We have an outer continental shelf moratorium on the Atlantic Ocean, an outer continental shelf moratorium on the Pacific Ocean, an outer continental shelf moratorium on the eastern Gulf of Mexico, congressional bans on on-shore oil and gas activities in specific areas of the Rockies and Alaska, and even a congressional ban on doing an analysis of the resource potential for oil and gas in the Atlantic, Pacific and eastern Gulf of Mexico.
The Argonne National Laboratory did a report in 2004 that identified 40 specific federal policy areas that halt, limit, delay or restrict natural gas projects. I urge you to review it. It is a long list. If I may, I offer it today if you would like to include it in the record.
When many of these policies were implemented, oil was selling in the single digits, not the triple digits we see now. The cumulative effect of these policies has been to discourage U.S. investment and send U.S. companies outside the United States to produce new supplies.
As a result, U.S. production has declined so much that nearly 60 percent of daily consumption comes from foreign sources.
Unfortunately, it’s not just gaseous Democrats demonizing oil companies as evil profiteers and crusading for punitive measures like the Carter-era windfall profits tax that Ronald Reagan valiantly battled.
The RNC rightly took on Obama’s support for the tax.
But here’s GOP presidential candidate John McCain in Charlotte, NC:
MCCAIN: “Um, I don’t like obscene profits being made anywhere–and I’d be glad to look not just at the windfall profits tax–that’s not what bothers me–but we should look at any incentives that we are giving to people, that or industries or corporations that are distorting the market.”
I warned you of McCain’s class warrior rhetoric in January when he sneered at those who embrace the profit motive and bashed “greedy” corporations who engage in free enterprise.
Would Ronald Reagan ever stand up in front of the liberal media and Republican voters and inveigh against “obscene profits?”
Any pro-McCain trolls out there care to explain? 50 brownie “points” available now!
Background: IBD’s excellent overview of the windfall profits-taxing windbags here. The answer McCain should have given:
Our free-market economy is built on profit. Higher profits mean more jobs, higher incomes, more investment in equipment and people, higher standards of living. Yes, profits are the engine for all of this — and that includes the profits of “Big Oil.”
By signaling that supply is scarce, higher profits encourage more production. Except, that is, when Congress through its inept lawmaking stands in the way. And that’s the case now with the oil industry.
Congress seems almost constantly at war with the oil companies — slapping them with taxes and pillorying their CEOs while ignoring the fact that higher profits lead to more exploration, drilling and development.
If anyone is to blame for our current energy mess, it’s Congress. At least 20 billion barrels of oil sit untapped in Alaska and another 30 billion lie offshore. Such sources that could help satisfy U.S. demand for years to come. Yet, Congress has put them out of bounds.
Instead, Congress scapegoats oil profits. In reality, according to Ernst & Young, from 1992 to 2006 the U.S. oil industry spent $1.25 trillion on long-term investment vs. profits of $900 billion.
Truth is, oil industry profits are in line with the rest of American industry. In 2007, a record year, they earned 8.3 cents per dollar of sales. Beverage companies and cigarette makers, by contrast, earned 19.1 cents. Drug makers, 18.4 cents. Indeed, all manufacturers, 8.9 cents on average, made more than “Big Oil.”
Besides, we’ve tried windfall profits taxes before, in the early 1980s, and they were an utter failure. As the Congressional Research Service found, revenues produced for the government were nearly 75% below what was expected. Meanwhile, domestic oil output fell 8%, while oil imports surged 16%.
That’s just poor policy, and even worse economics.
Remember: Oil companies don’t really pay “windfall profit” taxes, anyway. You do. Some 50 million Americans today own oil company stock, either directly or through 401(k)s and mutual funds. Don’t be suckered: “Windfall profits” taxes come right out of your retirement account, not out of the oil industry’s business.
See also: Jonah Goldberg, The Windfall Profits Tax Slap.