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 Business as usual for the oil and gas industry means increasing production even as investors are pulling out and bankruptcies are looming. (Photo: tolkien1914/flickr/cc)

"Our government cannot continue to bankroll climate destruction," said Friends of the Earth on Wednesday. (Photo: tolkien1914/flickr/cc)

'Enough Is Enough': Report Shows Big Oil's Offshore Tax Loopholes Cost US at Least $86 Billion Per Year

"We continue to bankroll the very fossil fuel companies responsible for the climate crisis, then wonder why our planet is on fire."

Kenny Stancil

A new report released Wednesday identifies $86 billion worth of offshore tax loopholes that a dozen U.S.-based oil and gas companies exploit each year as part of a "tax bonanza," a finding that comes as climate justice advocates push Congress to eliminate subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.

"Our government cannot continue to bankroll climate destruction," Friends of the Earth tweeted Wednesday.

The report (pdf), compiled by Friends of the Earth, Oxfam America, and BailoutWatch, reveals the consequences of "two esoteric provisions in the tax code worth tens of billions of dollars to Big Oil's multinational majors," including ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and other polluters most responsible for the climate emergency.

As a result of the GOP's 2017 tax law, corporations that drill overseas benefit from special treatment under the Global Intangible Low-Tax (GILTI) framework, which covers Foreign Oil and Gas Extraction Income (FOGEI).

The Treasury Department estimates that repealing the Trump-era exemption for FOGEI would raise $84.8 billion in revenue from just 12 companies that are currently eligible for the carveout, the report notes.

"It is unfortunate but not surprising that the handful of companies benefitting from these loopholes are lobbying to protect their special treatment."
—Chrive Kuveke, BailoutWatch

Another corporate handout, the so-called dual capacity loophole, is "a longstanding gimmick" wherein fossil fuel giants "artificially inflat[e] their foreign tax bills" to evade U.S. taxes.

Although they are permitted to claim tax credits for taxes paid to foreign governments, U.S. companies are not allowed to do so for non-tax payments such as royalties. 

"In practice, however, the categories often are commingled—particularly when companies make a single combined payment including both taxes and fees," the report explains. "A foreign country may even try to disguise non-tax payments as a tax, knowing that in many cases a multinational company may receive a foreign tax credit from its home country. Existing regulation gives dual capacity taxpayers vast latitude to assert what portions of their payments are taxes eligible to offset U.S. tax bills." 

Eliminating the dual capacity loophole would raise at least an additional $1.4 billion, according to the Biden administration, while the Joint Committee on Taxation puts the figure somewhere between $5.6 billion and $13.1 billion. The report points out that "the estimates vary so widely in part because we have precious little visibility into Big Oil's payments to governments—and that's just how the companies want it."

"As Democrats propose closing loopholes to help cover the cost of their $3.5 trillion reconciliation package," the report states, "these obscure subsidies present a rare chance to act on climate, fund infrastructure, and promote tax fairness in a single stroke."

While the House Ways and Means Committee's markup of the Build Back Better Act includes a tax reform proposal that would reverse the FOGEI carveout and the dual capacity loophole, it would leave intact at least $35 billion in federal subsidies for domestic fossil fuel production—despite President Joe Biden's call to phase out polluter giveaways over a decade.

House Democrats' failure to stop showering Big Oil with public money—a move supported by a majority of people in the U.S. and many, though not all, Democratic lawmakers—has drawn progressives' ire.

"The House bill made a decent start by targeting Big Oil's international tax loopholes, but it went nowhere near far enough," Lukas Ross, Climate and Energy Justice program manager at Friends of the Earth, said Wednesday in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) "needs to lead on climate and ensure that all $121 billion in fossil fuel subsidies are repealed in the final package," Ross added.

According to Daniel Mulé, policy lead for Oxfam's Extractive Industries Tax and Transparency project, "U.S. Big Oil companies like Exxon and Chevron have fought tooth and nail to keep the payments they make to governments around the world a secret, while paying lip service to the global movement for payment transparency."

"This secrecy," said Mulé, "has a potential tax impact in the U.S. as well, as it makes it all the more difficult to discern if U.S. oil and gas companies are illegitimately inflating their foreign tax credits."

The report draws attention to several legislative proposals that would do away with subsidies for domestic fossil fuel production as well as tax exemptions for foreign extraction, including:

The report was released the same day members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus urged House leaders to include a repeal of domestic fossil fuel subsidies in the Democrats' Build Back Better Act.

"Instead of creating jobs," the progressive lawmakers wrote, the subsidies "widen the profit margin of fossil fuel companies."

The report emphasizes that fossil fuel champions—including the Exxon lobbyist who was caught on camera discussing how the company benefits from offshore tax loopholes and intends to further undermine climate action—are fighting hard to preserve billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded handouts.

"Big Oil isn't going quietly," said Chrive Kuveke, an analyst at BailoutWatch. "Since Biden became president, it is unfortunate but not surprising that the handful of companies benefitting from these loopholes are lobbying to protect their special treatment."

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