Who is subsidizing whom?

In its lead editorial yesterday, The Wall Street Journal took a hard look into the Obama administration’s campaign to end so-called “subsidies for Big Oil.” The paper’s conclusion turns the administration’s claims on its head: “The truth is that this industry is subsidizing the government.”

This is the flip side of the coin that few realize – the oil and natural gas industry is an enormous source of revenue for the U.S. government. In fact, the industry pays the federal government approximately $86 million a day – or about $31 billion a year – in rents, royalties, bonuses and corporate taxes. That doesn’t even include the payments made at the local and state levels.

At times, the industry is actually sending more to local, state and federal governments in taxes and fees than what it earns in the United States. According to the Journal:

“Not paying their ‘fair share’? Here’s a staggering fact: The Tax Foundation estimates that, between 1981 and 2008, oil and gas companies sent more dollars to Washington and the state capitols than they earned in profits for shareholders.”

And, keep in mind, the taxes the oil and gas industry pays are only part of a much larger contribution to the U.S. economy. Our industry and the activities that support it accounted for more than $1 trillion of the U.S. economy in 2009, or about 7.7 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, according to a recent study. The industry contributes an estimated $470 billion a year in spending, wages and dividends alone.

So what about those “subsidies” that oil and gas companies supposedly get?

“These aren’t direct cash handouts like those that go to the green lobby,” the Journal says. “They’re deductions from taxes that cover the cost of doing business and earning income to tax in the first place. Most of them are available to other manufacturers.”

I’ve talked at length on this issue, but it bears repeating – attempts to misrepresent the industry’s tax contributions are nothing more than an attempt to pick winners and losers in the marketplace. The fact is that taxpayers would benefit far more from the revenues associated with increased access to U.S. energy supplies than they would from punitive tax measures aimed at oil companies. Policies that support greater energy development could generate $800 billion in government revenue by 2030 through lease sales, royalties, production fees and taxes, according to a recent study.

So when taxpayers see these claims about “subsidizing” oil companies, I think it’s valid to ask: “Who is subsidizing whom?”