Friday, November 19, 2010

Energy Implications of Tax Reform

I've been thinking about the implications for energy of a major deficit reduction effort along the lines suggested by the co-chairs of the President's fiscal responsibility and reform commission. Our present approach to providing incentives for various energy sources and technologies, new and old, is embedded in a tax code and taxation philosophy that might not survive the upheaval required to bring the US deficit and resulting federal debt back into a manageable range. This goes far beyond the comparatively minor question of extending expiring grants and tax credits that I discussed the other day; under the most stringent of the proposals from Mr. Bowles and Senator Simpson, such things wouldn't even exist. It's not clear how the Administration or Congress would promote favored energy technologies and strategies without these well-established but costly tools.

Start with renewable energy. We currently promote renewable fuels and electricity generation with a combination of mandates--policies such as the federal Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) and state Renewable Portfolio Standards--and subsidy payments. Until last year's stimulus bill established the Treasury renewable energy grants, for which eligibility is due to expire in a few weeks, most of those subsidy payments have come in the form of reductions in federal taxes, via either an investment tax credit (ITC) based on the cost of a project or a production tax credit (PTC) for actual energy generated. Both of these measures, which have had a checkered history of expirations and extensions, fall into the broad category of "tax expenditures". The Zero Option proposed by Messrs. Bowles and Simpson would permanently eliminate over $1 trillion of such tax expenditures, in exchange for much lower tax rates.

Even if the renewable energy tax credits were reloaded into a streamlined tax code under the "Wyden-Gregg-style" reform presented as Option 2 from the co-chairs, the value of those credits would be reduced--or at least rendered harder to extract--because the corporate tax rate would be reduced from the current 35% to 26%. That means that a higher proportion of companies would likely not pay large enough taxes to take full advantage of the renewable energy tax credits--or have as much appetite for others' credits via "tax equity" swaps. Compounding that, the likelihood of enacting cash grants to get around this restriction would probably be much lower in an environment in which entire herds of sacred cows were being slaughtered in the cause of averting a looming national deficit and debt crisis.

In the absence of such tax credits, renewable energy developers and manufacturers would be forced to rely even more on state-level mandates or a proposed federal renewable electricity standard. The first test of such a mandates-only approach might come in a few weeks, if the ethanol blenders' credit is allowed to expire, while the annual RFS mandate continues to ratchet up. Or companies might simply conclude that without generous tax subsidies for renewable energy deployment here, their best opportunities would be found in markets that are growing much faster than ours, based on actual energy demand, rather than better incentives. Developing Asia comes to mind. That shift might not be the worst outcome, in terms of both the US trade deficit and global emissions reductions.

Conventional energy firms wouldn't escape unscathed, either. They stand to lose significant tax expenditures as well, in the form of oil & gas depletion allowances, the Section 199 manufacturing deduction, and other benefits. However, the oil and gas industry has been paying an effective corporate tax rate above 40% even after all these credits and deductions. A drop to 26% might more than offset the loss of the other benefits, while more importantly bridging the competitive gap between US firms and foreign competitors that operate under lower tax rates and a territorial tax system, rather than being taxed on worldwide earnings, as US companies are today. Bowles/Simpson also proposed increasing the federal gasoline tax by 15¢ per gallon to restore the Highway Trust Fund to solvency. That's a worthy goal, but as I've pointed out previously the Highway fund faces complex challenges as the US car fleet becomes steadily more fuel efficient and increasingly moves away from liquid fuels taxed at the pump. Raising the gas tax is a stop-gap measure, at best, on the way to a different means of collecting road taxes.

With regard to climate policy, tax reform that eliminated tax credits or reduced their value would also tend to nudge the debate back in the direction of putting an explicit price on carbon, either via cap & trade or with an outright tax. Might that prospect suddenly look more attractive as an adjunct to a fairer and simpler income tax system, than it seemed when it would have come as a further complication to an already enormously convoluted tax system that is widely viewed as unfair by both liberals and conservatives? My guess is not, without something else that motivates us to tackle climate change on a much more urgent basis.

Now let's come back to reality. The proposals of the commission's co-chairs have already received a frosty reception or outright hostility from both sides of the aisle, and they haven't yet gotten the buy-in of the rest of their team; the final report requires the consent of 14 of the 18 members. Their ideas must also compete with a growing number of deficit-reduction alternatives, including a widely-reported plan from another bi-partisan group, plus at least one solo proposal from another member of the President's commission. The chances are low for any of these proposals to gain enough traction to be enacted without first being significantly watered down. However, it is starting to look just as risky to assume that the present tax system--and its cornucopia of energy incentives--will continue unchanged indefinitely. A quick glance at the US debt clock ought to make that abundantly clear.

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