(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden said he’d seek to impose higher taxes on oil companies that record “windfall” profits without reinvesting in production, with US gasoline prices still high a week ahead of midterm elections.
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“The oil industry has not met its commitment to invest in America and support the American people,” Biden said Monday. He called the industry’s profits “a windfall of war.”
Companies that don’t show they’re reinvesting in production, he said, are “going to pay a higher tax on their excess profits and face other restrictions.” He added that he would “work with Congress to look at these options that are available to us.”
In his brief speech, Biden set out a promise that will be all but impossible to deliver. Many Democrats have unsuccessfully sought a so-called windfall profit tax for more than a decade. No such proposal is likely to pass the current Senate, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and unless Biden’s party makes unexpected gains in next week’s elections, the GOP and centrist Democrats will be able to block it for the foreseeable future.
But the idea of imposing a tax on oil companies’ profits has garnered renewed attention among progressives in Congress after gasoline prices spiked to more than $5 a gallon this summer. Biden has repeatedly scolded Big Oil for the combination of high pump prices and record profits in the months leading up to the elections.
Biden’s proposal resembles measures that politicians across Europe, and in some other countries such as India, are imposing on companies reaping record profits from fossil fuels and power generation. Mostly, those governments are using cash raised from windfall taxes to help subsidize soaring energy bills for households.
Critics of such plans say they’ll deter companies from making the kind of investments that are crucial for increasing supply and keeping prices down, in the future -- a charge that may have more traction in the US, which unlike most European countries is itself a major oil and gas producer.
“Once again, the president is more worried about political posturing before the midterms than he is about advancing energy policies that will actually deliver for the American people,” said Chet Thompson, head of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers association. “A windfall profit tax might make for good sound bites, but as policy, it’s bad for consumers. It’s likely to disincentivize fuel production and make matters worse for drivers.”
The S&P 500 Energy Index dropped Monday after news of Biden’s planned windfall tax before regaining to close up 0.6%. The index had traded up 2.1% earlier in the day. ConocoPhillips, Pioneer Natural Resources Co., both domestically-focused oil producers, and Valero Energy Corp., a refiner, were the worst performers.
Biden has called on companies to invest more in fresh production for most of this year. But Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., Shell Plc and TotalEnergies SE are on track to hand almost $100 billion to shareholders annually in buybacks and dividends while reinvesting just $80 billion in their core businesses this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The West’s five biggest oil companies made more than $60 billion in the second quarter, beating the previous record set in 2008 by nearly 50%. On Friday, Exxon announced it had even surpassed its record second-quarter results by earning $19 billion in just three months.
Oil executives say there’s a limit to how much they can do to ease prices in the short term. Major projects take years of planning and development and need to offer attractive long-term returns, supported by consistent energy policies.
Chevron Chief Executive Officer Mike Wirth warned a windfall profit tax or export ban would be “short-sighted” because it would deter investment in energy. “Typically, if you want less of something, you tax it,” he said in a Bloomberg TV interview last week.
Stubbornly high energy costs and their knock-on effect on inflation are weakening Democrats’ prospects heading into the Nov. 8 midterms. The vote will determine whether the party maintains its current House and Senate majorities. Americans continue to rank the economy and inflation as their top priorities in polling.
In addition to attacking the energy industry, the Biden administration has sought to boost fuel supplies and bring oil prices lower by tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. White House officials have weighed steps to encourage oil refiners to keep more gasoline and diesel inside the US, instead of exporting it, as domestic stockpiles shrink ahead of winter. New restrictions on the export of fuels, including diesel, could be imposed administratively.
Read more: gasoline export ban could backfire with higher pump prices
But the idea of windfall taxes has gained ground in recent months. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and Biden ally who chairs the tax-writing Finance Committee, has floated a proposal that would establish a new federal surtax on oil companies that record a profit margin better than 10%.
California Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed a tax on oil company profits, with revenue used to provide rebates and offset higher energy costs for consumers.
The US enacted a windfall profit tax on the US oil industry in 1980, ultimately generating some $80 billion in gross revenues over the next eight years, according to the Congressional Research Service.
But that extra revenue may have come at the expense of domestic oil development; CRS analysts said US crude production declined as much as 8% over the same time period, even as the US became more dependent on foreign imports.
“The history of a windfall profits tax is clear: reduced domestic production and increased dependence on foreign suppliers,” said Anne Bradbury, head of the American Exploration and Production Council, which represents oil producers.
Read more: Big Oil lambasted for handing record profits to investors
For now, major oil companies continue to report huge earnings, with many of them detailing enhanced dividend payments and stock buybacks. Exxon CEO Darren Woods last week cast the company’s dividend as meeting Biden’s demand to return profits to American consumers.
“There has been discussion in the US about our industry returning some of our profits directly to the American people,” Woods said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing in the form of our quarterly dividend.”
Biden responded in a tweet: “Can’t believe I have to say this, but giving profits to shareholders is not the same as bringing prices down for American families.”
--With assistance from Jenny Leonard, Ari Natter, Ben Holland and Josh Wingrove.
(Updates with dividends and buybacks in third-last paragraph)
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