Energy Prices, Offshore Drilling, and an "Excess" Profits Tax-Becker
Increases in energy prices sharply accelerated during the past year, as the price of oil more than doubled, and gasoline prices in United States rose by 25 percent. Responding to these price increases, Senator McCain and President Bush have called for an end to the 27-year old federal moratorium on offshore drilling for oil and gas in US waters, while Senator Obama supports a continuation of the ban. McCain has also indicated that he is reconsidering his opposition to drilling in the Artic region of Alaska. In another response to the energy price boom, Obama has proposed an excess profits tax on oil companies, while McCain has come out against such a tax. What does economic analysis contribute to an evaluation of these proposals?
Supporters of a continuation of the moratorium worry that offshore drilling and oil leakages will kill many fish, and damage beaches and other coastal areas. These are potential risks, but whether to continue the moratorium involves a balancing of the advantages of drilling against environmental and other risks. These risks have not been affected by the rise in energy prices, but the benefits from drilling clearly have increased. Additional oil (and gas) from offshore drilling would lower US spending on imported oil, and thereby reduce the transfer of wealth from Americans to other oil and gas producers. Larger domestic energy supplies would also improve energy security in the event of a disruption in the supplies of oil and gas from major producers located in places like the Middle East and Nigeria that have had terrorist attacks on oil production facilities.
Even if offshore drilling started tomorrow, it would take several years before actual production began since construction of platforms in deep water and installation of equipment take time. The value of ending the moratorium now would depend not on energy prices and risks of disruption this year or the next, but on the situation beginning in several years and extending over the following decade. Some oil specialists are predicting a rise in the price of oil to $200 a barrel during the next few years. I have argued previously why such a large price increase is unlikely (see my post on May 11); indeed, oil may very well retreat from its present level of over $130 a barrel. Still, as long as world GDP continues to grow over the next decade at a sizable pace-which is likely- the price of oil will remain far above what it was in the 1990's.
This means that the financial and other benefits from offshore drilling are likely to greatly exceed the benefits at the time the moratorium was imposed, for oil was then much cheaper even in inflation-adjusted terms. The increasing share of imports in the oil consumed by the United States, and the rise in oil prices, explain why the value of imported oil rose more than five fold since the 1980s. This is why cost-benefit calculations of whether to end the moratorium and allow offshore drilling have shifted in the direction of allowing drilling. Although the risks of offshore drilling are much harder to quantify than the benefits, I believe the shift in the benefit-cost ratio has been large enough so that the time has come to allow drilling. Norway and Great Britain, to take two examples, have allowed drilling in the North Sea for many years without suffering major environmental damage. To be sure, in the end oil companies are the ones who have to decide whether the gains from drilling are worth the risks, including lawsuits if there are damaging oil spills, but these companies seem eager to start drilling offshore.
The proposed excess profits tax on the earnings of oil companies would discourage the search for additional oil, and hence would have the opposite effects on this search from a relaxation of the moratorium on offshore drilling. An excess profits tax that is expected to persist for many years discourages further exploration for oil simply because much of the profits on new oil production would be taxed away. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter introduced a windfall tax on oil companies to prevent them from profiting a lot from the high price of oil due to the Iran-Iraq war. An evaluation by the Congressional Research Service, a think tank that provides reports to Congress, concluded that the tax significantly reduced domestic oil production and raised oil imports. Disillusionment with the tax led to its abandonment in 1987. Yet the lessons from this fiasco have been forgotten, for since the post-Katrina rise in gasoline prices in 2005, members of Congress have made regular attempts to introduce legislation with a sizable excess profits tax on oil companies.
Even those Americans who worry a lot about global warming and other global pollution form the use of oil should be reluctant to discourage oil production offshore or elsewhere by American oil companies. Lower production by American companies would cause a rise in the world price of oil. Moreover, increased production by other countries would tend to offset reduced production by the United States, so that the effect on global warming and global pollution is likely to be modest. However, the increase in wealth transferred from the United States to the Middle East, Russia, Venezuela, and other oil-producing countries could be substantial.