Despite $93 Billion in Profits, Big Oil Demands Continued Tax Breaks
The 2013 profit totals are in for the big five oil companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Shell. Their financial reports indicate that they earned a combined total of $93 billion last year, or $177,000 per minute. After years of oil production declines, the big five oil companies actually increased their total production in 2013, predominately due to BP and ConocoPhillips almost doubling their total production.
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The companies’ higher oil production yet lower profits indicate that it is becoming more expensive to produce oil as the number of newer, easier and cheaper fields shrink. This is why, despite their outsized earnings, the oil companies are not only fighting to keep their tax breaks but also lobbying to lift the crude oil export ban. But doing so could hurt working families, our economy, and our energy security. Instead, we need to invest in cleaner transportation alternatives.
As mindboggling as it sounds, Big Oil’s $93 billion in profits in 2013—impressive by any standard—were nonetheless a 27 percent reduction in profits compared to 2012, primarily because gasoline averaged 16 cents per gallon—or four percent—less. Despite the decreases, Exxon Mobil, Shell and Chevron still had the first, seventh and eighth, respectively, highest profits of any global public company on the 2013 Fortune 500 list. BP finished 30th, while ConocoPhillips ranked 50th, mostly because it spun off its refining business partway through 2012.
It would not be surprising if the big five oil companies use their 2013 decline in profits as another excuse to pressure Congress to retain their $2.4 billion-per-year tax breaks. The largest of these special provisions allows these companies to qualify for the “limitation on section 199 deduction attributable to oil, natural gas, or primary products,” which will cost taxpayers $14.4 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. This tax break was enacted in 2004 and was designed to encourage manufacturing to remain in the U.S. rather than move overseas. It ought not apply to oil and natural gas production since the oil and gas fields cannot be moved to another nation.
The Joint Committee on Taxation found that the second-largest deduction was for “modifications of foreign tax credit rules applicable to major integrated oil companies which are dual capacity taxpayers.” This provision is worth $7.5 billion over 10 years. Seth Hanlon, former Director of Fiscal Reform at the Center for American Progress, best describes why this tax break is unwarranted:
Our tax system allows companies that do business abroad to reduce from their tax bill any income taxes paid to other governments. The rules are supposed to prevent oil companies from claiming credit for royalty payments to foreign governments. Royalties are not taxes; they are fees for the privilege of extracting natural resources.
… oil companies have been permitted to claim credits for certain payments to foreign governments, even in countries that generally impose low or no business tax (suggesting that these payments, or levies, are in fact a form of royalty). Dual capacity taxpayer rules, therefore, are a subsidy for foreign production by U.S. oil companies.
The decline in profits is also why the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon Mobil, and other oil companies are lobbying to lift the crude oil export ban, which would enable them to sell their domestic oil at the world, or Brent, price that fetched nearly $10 per barrel more than the domestic, or West Texas Intermediate, price on Feb. 7. Lifting the ban would force the U.S. to import more expensive foreign oil to replace the exported domestic oil, which could raise gasoline prices. Banking giant Barclays Plc predicts that lifting the current ban could add $10 billion annually to gasoline prices paid at the pump.
If there is any good news here for American families and businesses, it is that gasoline prices, which hit a record high in 2012, were lower in 2013. This cut at the pump reduced the average household’s annual gasoline expenditures.
The fact that profits decreased in 2013 despite production increasing calls into question the big five companies’ reliance on finding and developing more difficult, dangerous oil fields—such as those in the Arctic Ocean. It is fairly clear that such a business model is not economically sustainable. Instead, they—and we—could benefit from greater investment in cleaner, alternative transportation technologies.
Of course, when it comes to spending their money, the priorities of oil companies are fairly obvious. All of the companies, except for ConocoPhillips, spent a combined total of $32 billion, or nearly 40 percent of their total profits, to repurchase their own stock. This increases the value of the remaining shares, providing a bounty to senior executives, boards of directors and other large shareholders. The CEOs of these five companies had a combined compensation of $96 million in 2012, the last year for which data are available, or nearly $20 million per CEO. This is nearly 400 times greater than the $51,107 median income for a family of four during that same year. These five major oil corporations also spent $45 million on lobbying in 2013; every $1 spent on lobbying helped the companies protect $53 of their tax breaks—an outstanding rate of return.
In addition to receiving unjustified tax breaks, the big five oil companies also benefit from the lack of federal limits on carbon pollution generated by oil and gas production, transportation, and refining. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that “petroleum and natural gas systems” and refiners were the second- and third-largest sources of carbon and other climate pollution among the major industrial sectors that must report their emissions. Since there are no federal limits on this pollution, American families and businesses must bear the costs of more climate pollution, such as damages from extreme weather events, heightened smog and tropical diseases. These—and other—oil companies can dump their carbon and other climate pollution in the sky for free. And at our expense.
Despite the decline in profits in 2013, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Shell are some of the richest, most profitable companies in the world. They produce a valuable commodity that is essential to our economy. However, their proposal to eliminate the crude oil export ban, their battle to keep some unnecessary federal tax breaks, and their uncontrolled climate pollution all could or do impose real costs on American families. It’s up to President Obama and Congress to retain and adopt policies that benefit all Americans, not just Big Oil’s bottom line.
Visit EcoWatch’s ENERGY page for more related news on this topic.
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Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
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