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Big Oil Profits from High Gasoline Prices

Energy
Big Oil Profits from High Gasoline Prices

Center for American Progress

By Daniel J. Weiss and Jackie Weidman

Oil company executives, from left, ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, Chevron Chairman and CEO John Watson, ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva, Shell Oil President Marvin Odum, and BP America Chairman and President Lamar McKay are sworn in on Capitol Hill on June 15, 2010. SOURCE: AP/ Haraz N. Ghanbari

Time magazine reported in December that “2012 will go down as most expensive year ever for gas.” The Energy Information Administration determined that gasoline averaged $3.63 per gallon—a dime per gallon more than the previous record set in 2011. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that high gasoline prices were due to high crude oil prices—“with crude oil accounting for 66 percent of the retail cost of gasoline.”

Not surprisingly, higher gasoline prices took a bigger bite out of families’ budgets in 2012. According to data recently released by the EIA:

Gasoline expenditures in 2012 for the average U.S. household reached $2,912, or just under 4 percent of income before taxes. … this was the highest estimated percentage of household income spent on gasoline in the last decade, with the exception of 2008, when the average household spent a similar amount. Although overall gasoline consumption has decreased in recent years, a rise in average gasoline prices has led to higher overall household gasoline expenditures.

Where does all of this money go? Into the pockets of Big Oil, of course. While higher gasoline prices caused families pain at the pump, they were a boon to the world’s five largest oil companies. BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell made a combined $118 billion in profits in 2012, or an average of almost $500 in profit for every one of the nearly 250 million passenger vehicles on the road in the U.S. This huge 2012 haul follows the big five oil companies’ record profit of $137 billion in 2011. Download full data on Big Oil’s profits and activities in 2012.

Below we dig a little deeper into the big five’s latest earnings—including how they spent them—and explain why companies this profitable should not be receiving billions of dollars in tax breaks, especially when conservatives plan severe cuts in vital middle-class programs, including Medicare, education and cancer research.

Sitting on drilling leases

Despite their huge 2012 profits and their $70 billion in capital reserves, the big five oil companies actually produced less oil in 2012 compared to 2011. These five companies each have several hundred idle offshore leases that could produce oil if they were developed, according to an analysis for Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA).* This report found that “ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips, hold full or partial shares in more than 1,500 of these idle federal drilling leases spanning almost 8 million acres … according to previously undisclosed data obtained from the U.S. Department of Interior.”

Boosting the bottom line

While not investing in producing oil from their idle leases, four of the companies—all but BP—spent $42 billion, or one-third of their profits, repurchasing their stock. This practice enriches shareholders but it doesn’t add to oil supplies or to investments in alternative fuels or other new technologies.

The big five oil companies invested nearly $50 million of their abundant bounty to lobby Congress in 2012. They spent nearly $8 million on federal campaign contributions, with Republican candidates receiving $4 for every $1 donated to Democrats. A major goal of these political efforts was to retain their special tax breaks, which annually are worth $2.4 billion, according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. Last March Big Oil successfully lobbied against a Senate bill to eliminate the special tax breaks. The bill was defeated by a vote of 51-47, with 60 votes needed for passage.

These special tax provisions are part of what makes the oil and gas industry the most heavily subsidized energy source in the world over the past 100 years, according to “What Would Jefferson Do?,” a study by the venture capitalist firm DBL Investors. It determined that the oil industry received a total of $446 billion in government subsidies from 1918 through 2009. Meanwhile, the renewable energy industry received $5.5 billion over the past 15 years. U.S. taxpayers invested $80 in oil for every $1 invested in clean, renewable energy.

Jack Gerard, head of the American Petroleum Institute, repeatedly claims that “The oil and gas industry gets no subsidies, zero, nothing,” but this ignores reality. Economists recognize that there is no meaningful difference between tax expenditures and programs that spend money directly. President Ronald Reagan’s chief economic advisor, economist Martin Feldstein, noted that “These tax rules—because they result in the loss of revenue that would otherwise be collected by the government—are equivalent to direct government expenditures. If Congress is serious about cutting government spending, it has to go after many of them.”

Moreover, contrary to claims by Big Oil lobbyists, the big three publicly owned U.S. oil companies—ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips—paid relatively low federal effective tax rates in 2011. Reuters reports that their tax payments were “a far cry from the 35 percent top corporate tax rate.” Their effective federal tax rates in 2011 were: ExxonMobil, 13 percent; Chevron, 19 percent; and ConocoPhillips, 18 percent.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) just-released energy plan argues that these special oil tax breaks should be retained because they help “companies’ ability to make the capital expenditures needed to bring re‐sources to market.” This claim ignores that the big five oil companies have $70 billion in cash reserves—ample capital to bring oil to the market.

Maintaining the existing special tax breaks for the big five oil companies makes little sense. In essence, the policy allows Big Oil to force Americans to pay them twice: first at the pump for high gasoline prices, and again by robbing the U.S. Treasury of $2.4 billion annually—money that is replaced with tax revenue from the middle class. After posting enormous profits in 2012, elimination of these unnecessary special tax breaks for the largest oil companies is long overdue.

Visit EcoWatch’s ENERGY page for more related news on this topic.

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Click here to tell Congress to Expedite Renewable Energy.

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Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress. Jackie Weidman is a Special Assistant at the Center.

* According to the report, “The definition of idle, or inactive, leases used in this report is the same definition used by the Department of Interior. According to the department, idle leases are those leased areas that are not producing and have no approved exploration or development plan. Certain activities such as geophysical and geotechnical analysis, including seismic and other types of surveys, may be going on in some of these areas.”

 

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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