Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Subsidies for oil companies

I've heard a fair amount of talk lately (some from ethanol enthusiasts) about the "subsidies" that are given to oil producers, and here are a couple of articles that discuss them in case anyone else is interested.  First, from Forbes, and second, from Mother Jones.  What is notable is that they are using an interesting definition for "subsidy" to mean anything that would make it cheaper to produce petroleum products.  I would, however, tend to use a tighter definition: tax credits not available to those not producing petroleum and direct payments to petroleum producers.

Along those lines, the general categories of the "broad" definition of "subsidy" are heating assistance to the poor (HEAP), fuel tax exemptions for farmers (who are not using that fuel on the roads), the "Strategic Petroleum Reserve", depreciation schedules, expensing allowances, and an interesting provision called the depletion allowance in the tax code.  It's supposed to compensate for the loss of value of a well due to the oil being pumped out.

There are some actual tax credits there, but no real direct payments, and by and large, the biggest chunk of the supposed "subsidies" consist of not charging farmers and pilots for using fuel away from the roads (hence the fuel tax is inappropriate), welfare programs, and tax provisions available to all companies in all lines of business.   About the same thing goes for coal; there are depreciation schedules and a few tax credits, but really no subsidies, strictly speaking, in the way that one receives a large tax credit for buying a hybrid or electric vehicle.

So while one may debate the soundness of these tax and spending provisions, let's do ourselves a favor and stop calling them subsidies, because they aren't.

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