Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Unlevel Playing Field for Energy

An editorial in last weekend's Wall St. Journal led me to a recent analysis by the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) summarizing the costs of the federal government's various "subsidies" for energy from different sources.  This is both useful and timely, since discussions of specific subsidies such as the expiring wind production tax credit inevitably lead to questions about how incentives for renewable energy compare to those for oil, gas, nuclear, and other more traditional sources.  As the Journal noted, the EIA stopped short of comparing these incentives on the basis of the relative productivity of different energy sources, but even without that it's still apparent that the category of new renewable electricity--excluding hydropower--received 21% of the federal energy benefits for 2010, while accounting for less than 3% of domestic energy production that year, when oil and gas, which provided 49% of US energy production, received less than 8% of these benefits.  Whether on an absolute or relative basis, renewables receive much more generous federal support than oil and gas.

Before digging further into the EIA's analysis, I should point out an important distinction between the federal expenses and incentives covered in the report and the externalities that are frequently conflated with them.  It is certainly true that many of these energy technologies involve significant impacts that aren't reflected in their market prices, and that the production and especially the consumption of fossil fuels create serious environmental and security externalities. However, to whatever extent federal subsidies address externalities they do so indirectly, at best, and in many cases inefficiently.  The focus of this posting, just like the EIA report's, is on the federal government's cash outlays and "tax expenditures"--deductions, credits, etc.--that have a direct bearing on the federal deficit and debt burden that are the subject of intense debate in this election cycle.

The tables in the report's executive summary reveal several key facts.  Between 2007 and 2010 federal energy subsidies in constant dollars more than doubled to $37.2 B, with most of the increase going to renewables and energy efficiency, except for a sizable bump in low-income energy assistance payments.   $14.8 B of the increase originated with the 2009 stimulus bill, none of which was directed at oil and gas, but which appropriated nearly $8 B to conservation and efficiency.  Overall, renewables received $14.7 B, split 55/45 between electricity and biofuels, while nuclear received $2.5 B and oil and gas $2.8 B.  The latter figure is lower than you'll see elsewhere, because among other incentives that the EIA chose to exclude from its analysis was the Section 199 deduction for manufacturers, which is budgeted at around $1 B/yr for oil and gas firms.  The logic behind that exclusion seems sound, because US manufacturers of biofuels, wind turbines, solar panels and other renewable energy equipment qualify for the same tax credit, and at a higher rate than oil companies.

I was also struck by the fact that oil and gas received just $70 million out of the more than $4 B spent on R&D. If there's one category in which federal expenditures on renewables should be expected to dwarf those for conventional energy, this is it, and they did so by a factor of more than 20 times.  (Coal R&D received more than $0.6 B, presumably for clean coal technologies.)

It's also the case that while the growth of renewable energy output from 2000-10 was dramatic, the relatively smaller net changes in oil and gas output in that period masked the substantial replacement of depleting resources that would have otherwise resulted in a large drop in output, especially for natural gas.  This is precisely the aspect of the mature oil and gas industry at which these federal incentives are aimed, to enable US projects to compete with the international opportunities to which many of these companies have access.

The authors of the report suggested caution in comparing the allocations of incentives to the energy produced by each technology, because some of these incentives were paid for projects still under construction and in some cases represented the front-loading of what would otherwise have been a 10-year stream of tax credits.  Fair enough.  Yet even with the conservative assumption that the entire $4.9 B of non-R&D subsidies for wind power in 2010 came in the form of cash grants in lieu of the 30% investment tax credit for new wind turbines that would produce for 20 years at a 30% capacity factor, that still equates to a subsidy of more than 16% of the average present wholesale value of all the electricity those turbines will produce, using prevailing industrial sector electricity prices as a proxy for wholesale prices.  By comparison, the $2.7 B of oil and gas tax incentives for 2010 represented just 1% of the wholesale value of US production of these fuels, before refining.

A serious debate about the appropriate level of US energy subsidies should begin with the facts, rather than with misperceptions. It should also focus first on the goals of such incentives, before jumping to the details of this tax credit vs. that one.  What do we want these measures to achieve?  If it's simply the promotion of energy production, then the current incentive system looks too heavily skewed in favor of renewables.  If it's jobs, then we should be realistic about how many can be added by such a capital-intensive sector.  If it's the promotion of both energy security and innovation, then at least parts of the current system look directionally right, though I'd argue that we'd benefit from spending more on renewable energy R&D and less on the deployment of mature-but-expensive technologies like wind.  However, if emissions and climate change are our primary concerns, then these incentives are not a terribly effective way to address them.  My own expectation is that regardless of whether the wind tax credit is extended for another year, most of the tax incentives that the EIA assessed here will eventually be swept away by tax reform focused on reducing corporate tax rates to improve US competitiveness, while eliminating loopholes to make the changes revenue-neutral.