While Congress and the presidential candidates debate the wisdom of a windfall tax on oil companies, Alaska has already imposed one, hauling in billions of dollars in new revenue for the state treasury.
Republicans in Congress this June united to defeat a proposed windfall tax on oil companies, deriding it as a bad idea that would discourage investment in U.S. oil exploration.
Things worked out far differently in the GOP stronghold of Alaska, a state whose economic fate is closely tied to the oil industry.
Over the opposition of oil companies, Republican Gov. Sarah Palin and Alaska’s Legislature last year approved a major increase in taxes on the oil industry — a step that has generated stunning new wealth for the state as oil prices soared.
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At a time when Americans are feeling the pinch at the gasoline pump and oil companies are racking up record profits, Alaska’s choice foreshadows one of the sharpest debates in the upcoming presidential election.
Democrat Barack Obama supports a national windfall-profits tax, while Republican John McCain opposes it.
Alaska collected an estimated $6 billion from the new tax during the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. That helped push the state’s total oil revenue — from new and existing taxes, as well as royalties — to more than $10 billion, double the amount received last year.
While many other states are confronting big budget deficits because of the troubled economy, Alaska officials are in the enviable position of exploring new ways to spend the state’s multibillion-dollar budget surplus.
Some of that new cash will end up in the wallets of Alaska’s residents.
Palin’s administration last week gained legislative approval for a special $1,200 payment to every Alaskan to help cope with gas prices, which are among the highest in the country.
That check will come on top of the annual dividend of about $2,000 that each resident could receive this year from an oil-wealth savings account.
State Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat who supported the windfall tax, said the oil companies ” … were literally printing money on the North Slope. We decided to strike the balance a little bit more on our side.”
The industry, however, warns new taxes are already discouraging future exploration and development in newer, more expensive projects needed to boost waning production in Alaska’s oil patches.
“Clearly, from the investor standpoint, Alaska has become a less attractive place to invest exploration and production dollars,” said Marilyn Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
Tax imposed by Carter
The oil industry has long fought windfall-profits taxes. Officials cite a congressional study that indicated a windfall-profits tax imposed by President Carter — and later repealed in the 1980s — appeared to discourage U.S. oil-field development.
“It was a bad idea in the 1980s, and it is an even worse idea today,” says an American Petroleum Institute statement on windfall taxes.
The industry’s arguments held sway in the U.S. Senate in June, where Republicans defeated a Democratic proposal for a windfall-profits tax that would have raised an estimated $10 billion to $12 billion.
The debate has spilled into the presidential campaign.
Obama supports a federal windfall-profits tax, with the proceeds used to provide rebates of $500 or $1,000 to taxpayers. “Increased domestic oil exploration certainly has its place,” Obama said last Monday in Michigan. “But it’s not the solution” to America’s energy problems, he added.
McCain has blasted the idea, saying it would “increase our dependence on foreign oil and hinder exactly the same kind of domestic exploration and production we need.”
In Alaska, the willingness of Republicans to tax the oil industry reflects unusual political developments.
Last year, as part of a major federal corruption investigation, an oil-services executive — former VECO Chairman Bill Allen — pleaded guilty to bribing some state legislators as he sought to limit the size of an oil-tax increase approved in 2006.
In the fall primary of 2006, Palin upset Republican incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski, whom she criticized for giving too much of a break to the oil industry.
Then last year, Palin introduced a graduated tax pegged to increased oil prices. The state Legislature modified her proposal to increase the state’s take even further.
The bill’s proponents — a coalition of Democrats and maverick Republicans — argued that oil production was declining in Alaska, and that the lower tax rate under previous governors had done little to spur additional investment in the state’s oil industry.
Critics say the companies, who have lobbied to open the federal Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploration, have lagged badly in developing already available fields on state lands. Some estimates indicate those fields may contain billions of barrels of oil, mostly heavy crude that’s difficult to extract.
They argue that the state — which owns most of the land around Prudhoe Bay, North America’s largest oil field — needs to grab its fair share of proceeds from the declining output there.
“You don’t get to grow another oil barrel,” said French, the Anchorage lawmaker. “You sell that barrel once, and it’s gone forever.”
The Alaska tax is imposed on the net profit earned on each barrel of oil pumped from state-owned land, after deducting costs for production and transportation, which are currently estimated at just under $25 a barrel.
The tax is set at its highest rate in Prudhoe Bay, where the state takes 25 percent of the net profit of a barrel when its price is at or below $52.
The percentage then escalates as oil prices rise over that benchmark. Alaska gets about $49 of a $120 barrel, not counting other fees.
ConocoPhillips said that in total, once royalty payments and other taxes are added in, the state captures about 75 percent of the value of a barrel.
An accounting benefit eases the sting for oil companies. They get a huge deduction on their state taxes when calculating their federal taxes.
Companies pull back
Still, oil-industry officials contend the tax already has affected investment decisions.
BP Alaska, which runs Prudhoe Bay, said earlier this year that it had delayed the development in the western region of the North Slope as a result of the tax. ConocoPhillips cited the same reason for scrapping a $300 million refinery project.
“What the tax has done is take away all the upside,” said Doug Suttles, president of BP Alaska. The U.K.-based oil company paid more than $500 million in taxes to Alaska last quarter — far more than it earned in profits from Alaskan oil, according to Suttles.
Investment dollars are flowing instead to places that have a better return, like the massive deep-water projects offshore in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, where ConocoPhillips said the government take equals less than 50 percent of the barrel.
In July, BP announced it would begin developing the Liberty oil field, a $1.5 billion project expected to yield 100 million barrels of oil, located on federal lands in Alaska. If the project had been located in state lands on the North Slope, “I don’t think we’d have been able to make that investment,” Suttles said.
Alaska state officials say they still do plenty to court the oil industry, such as giving small, independent producers breaks on royalty payments. And the state tax bill includes a generous provision for deducting investments in new fields or other capital costs.
“We think that, hopefully, [the new tax system] will encourage firms to get on the Slope and produce more oil and gas,” said state petroleum economist Cherie Nienhuis.
Prices spur global trend
Alaska’s decision to raise taxes is part of a global trend. Emboldened by high energy prices and the industry’s difficulty in finding giant new oil fields, oil-rich nations from Venezuela to Russia have been raising taxes and royalty payments in recent years.
Even the market-friendly United Kingdom, home to oil giants BP and Royal Dutch Shell, recently has sought to capture a bigger share of revenue from companies operating in the North Sea.
Despite the oil companies’ complaints, many say that as they vie for access to new oil and gas deposits, they have little choice but to accept deals they once might have spurned.
Many Alaskans are happy to have newfound leverage over oil companies in what they see as the state’s last big boom. But others see it as a tricky issue for the state.
Although Alaska’s huge resources and relative political stability make it affordable for oil firms to pay huge taxes there, “you don’t want take so much that you discourage activity,” said Kenneth Medlock, a petroleum economist at Rice University in Houston. “You want to strike that fine balance.”