Despite lower prices at the pump, the biggest publicly traded oil companies in the world have raked in billions of dollars in profit over the past three months. According to their earnings reports released last week, the big five oil companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell—earned a combined $30.2 billion during the first quarter of 2013, or $331 million per day. Cumulatively, Big Oil profits were six percent lower than the first quarter of 2012 due to lower gasoline and oil prices, but these companies still earned a combined $229,832 every minute from January through March. This is more than what 95 percent of American households earn in an entire year.
Nearly one-third of these profits were used to repurchase companies’ stock, which only serves to pad the pockets of senior executives and the largest shareholders. The big five oil companies are also sitting on $82 billion in cash reserves, according to reports from the Securities and Exchange Commission for each company. While making these huge profits, BP and Exxon are the culprits in ongoing major oil disasters that are affecting the Gulf Coast and Arkansas.
Big Oil Behaving Badly, Again
April 20, 2013, was the third anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 oil-rig workers and gushed 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 87 days. Three years later hundreds of Gulf Coast residents are still experiencing serious health effects from this spilled oil, along with the nearly 2 million gallons of toxic chemicals dumped into the Gulf of Mexico to disperse oil during the haphazard cleanup process. There is growing evidence that the oil and dispersants are also harming sea life.
Congress has yet to pass a single law to strengthen federal oversight of offshore oil and gas production. A year ago a Center for American Progress column, The Lasting Impact of Deepwater Horizon, highlighted the need for Congress to raise the preposterously low $75 million limit on liability that oil companies currently face for future oil blowouts. The cleanup costs for the 2010 BP disaster rang in at more than $14 billion at the end of 2012, according to the Congressional Research Service. This demonstrates the huge financial and environmental risks that face Americans if these liability limits remain so artificially low and the companies responsible for future disasters refuse to pay for cleaning up their messes.
On land, meanwhile, fellow oil giant ExxonMobil’s most recent spill dumped 500,000 gallons of tar sands crude oil near Mayflower, Arkansas, in late March 2013. The spill forced the evacuation of two dozen homes, and a massive cleanup is currently underway. Because this tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, is classified under the Superfund law as “diluted bitumen,” this and similar kinds of oil are exempt from the 8-cents-per-barrel fee that conventional oil must pay into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. This fund, created under the Superfund Act in 1980 and paid for by levying this tax on oil companies, pays for the oil-spill cleanup should a mishap occur. Exxon gets to avoid it.
This terrible oil-pipeline spill spewed tar sands oil similar to the oil that could be transported through the Keystone XL pipeline if it is approved by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Pipeline discharges are a common event. NPR reported that, “Federal data show that on average over the past decade, nearly 3.5 million gallons of oil spilled from pipelines each year.” If Keystone XL moves forward, not only will Big Oil profit from its operation, it could eventually add to this spill tally.
Big Oil Skimps on Corporate Taxes and Receives Billions of Dollars in Wasteful Subsidies
The biggest three publicly owned U.S. oil companies—ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips—also paid relatively low federal effective tax rates in 2011. Reuters reported that their tax payments were “a far cry from the 35 percent top corporate tax rate.” It estimated that ExxonMobil’s effective federal tax rate in 2011 was 13 percent, Chevron’s was 19 percent and ConocoPhillips’s was 18 percent.
The oil and gas industry gave more than $70 million in federal campaign contributions during the 2012 cycle, with a whopping 90 percent going to Republican candidates. The big five oil companies spent nearly $50 million on lobbying Congress in 2012, or more than one-third of the entire oil and gas industry’s expenditures. A major goal of these political activities is to retain special tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, which add up to $40 billion over a decade. Despite ranking as some of the most profitable companies in the world, the big five oil companies receive $2.4 billion in tax breaks from Congress each year, according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. U.S. taxpayers should no longer foot the bill for antiquated, 100-year-old fossil-fuel subsidies that, upon conception, were meant to help a then-fledgling industry grow.
Big Oil argues that it needs these tax breaks for oil exploration and development. Yet the big five oil companies produced two percent less oil in the first quarter of 2013, according to their recent financial statements, compared to the same time last year. These companies each have several hundred idle offshore leases that could produce oil if they were to be developed, according to an analysis for Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA). Instead, these companies leave the leases undeveloped while sitting on billions of dollars of cash reserves.
Big Oil Benefits From Low Federal Royalty Rates on Public Lands
In addition to special tax breaks, Big Oil companies drill for oil and gas on public lands owned by all Americans while paying relatively little for what they produce from these areas. Oil companies pay a royalty for the oil and natural gas that they extract from these federal places: A law from the 1920s requires the oil and gas industry to pay “not less than” a 12.5 percent royalty on oil and gas produced from onshore public lands. This rate has not been permanently increased in nearly 100 years, despite the fact that there is nothing preventing Congress or the Obama Administration from doing so.
The federal royalty for oil and gas production on public lands is much lower than what is paid to some states and private landowners for oil taken from their lands. The state of Texas, for example, assesses up to a 25 percent royalty for oil produced from its lands. North Dakota has a royalty of 18.8 percent, while Wyoming’s rate is at least 16.6 percent. Royalties for oil taken from private landowners nationwide are estimated to average 18.8 percent.
Higher royalty rates on federal public lands would ensure that Americans receive more compensation for oil companies’ use of their lands and minerals, which is all the more important in this time of fiscal uncertainty. The Department of the Interior should finalize plans to significantly raise the royalty rate for oil and gas produced on public lands.
The five biggest oil companies are making tens of billions of dollars in profits, while paying artificially low, ineffective federal tax rates and low royalties for taking and producing oil and gas owned by all Americans. In addition, companies can evade payments into the oil-spill cleanup fund based on specific categorizations of different kinds of petroleum. Meanwhile, they continue to make billions of dollars in profits every quarter while receiving special tax breaks from Congress.
None of this makes sense, especially when sequestration is forcing steep automatic across-the-board cuts in college assistance, cancer research and other middle-class programs. It’s time to ask the huge, profit-making, big five oil companies to pay their fair share.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
Earth's ice is melting 57 percent faster than in the 1990s and the world has lost more than 28 trillion tons of ice since 1994, research published Monday in The Cryosphere shows.
By Jewel Fraser
Noreen Nunez lives in a middle-class neighborhood that rises up a hillside in Trinidad's Tunapuna-Piarco region.