Imposition fo an oil import fee -- which is actively under consideration by some Reagan administration officials and members of the Senate Finance Committee -- would reverse some or all of the economic growth and lower inflation and interest rates generated by the current decline in oil prices, many economists say.
These economists, who range from conservative to liberal, question whether it would be worth paying that price to boost federal revenue -- particularly if the purpose of the fee is to replace the revenue lost from lowering personal income tax rates by a greater amount and increasing corporate taxes by a smaller amount than proposed in the House-passed tax revision bill pending before the committee.
Moreover, such a fee does not seem to be the first choice of many economists because it would raise business costs and make American products less competitive on world markets.
Many economists also see falling oil prices as a special boon this year when the inflationary impact of the declining value of the U.S. dollar on foreign exchange markets is expected to be felt. Some analysts fear that the Federal Reserve Board could decide to tighten credit conditions and slow economic growth if inflation begins to accelerate. The oil price decline is seen as reducing that possibility.
Perhaps surprisingly, most segments of the oil industry oppose such a fee. Not only are major companies such as Exxon Corp., Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. against it, but so is the Independent Petroleum Association of America, whose members are small drilling and producing companies. ". . . Taxes, tariffs, fees or quotas on imported crude oil or petroleum products would be counterproductive to the national interest at this time," a recent IPAA policy statement said.
A $5-a-barrel fee, the most commonly mentioned figure, would be equal to about 12 cents a gallon and raise about $8 billion a year if imports of crude oil and refined products remained at last year's levels.
Imports account for less than 30 percent of U.S. petroleum use. If their cost were raised by a fee, the price of domestically produced crude oil and natural gas liquids also would go up, and the U.S. oil industry's revenue would increase by about $20 billion.
A portion of that increase would be taxed away through the federal crude oil windfall profits tax as the price of oil rose, and through the corporate and personal income taxes as well. How much additional federal revenue those taxes might yield would depend on a number of things, including how higher oil prices affected the overall economy, economists say.
There also could be some increase in natural gas and coal prices -- or at least less of a decline than otherwise would occur -- if oil prices are propped up by an import fee.
Altogether, the direct increase in the cost of petroleum products, if passed through entirely to users, would approach $30 billion and be equal to about 0.7 percent of this year's gross national product, which is expected to be about $4.2 trillion.
It probably would take about two years for the higher prices to work their way through the economy, according to economists who have studied the situation.
At the moment, oil prices are falling while the import fee is still only a proposal, albeit apparently a serious possibility, according to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.). That timing difference led economist Alan Greenspan of Townsend-Greenspan & Co. to caution the committee last week. "There is somehow an assumption it is politically easy" to impose a fee, Greenspan said. "There is almost never a way to time such a tax so that prices don't fall and then rise again when it is put on."
Greenspan's point was that whatever restraining influence falling oil prices may have on various price indexes will have occurred already by the time an import fee could be imposed. Then, when the higher oil prices begin to show up in the indexes, the additional inflation will be highly visible, he predicted.
The Finance Committee is considering the fee for several reasons, including providing some price support for the sagging domestic oil industry and for bankers who have risky loans to it. But the principal concern is to find added revenue to offset other tax cuts that President Reagan and members of the committee want to make as part of the massive tax revision bill passed late last year by the House of Representatives.
Several committee members are backing legislation to enact a fee. Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) wants a sliding fee to capture any decline in crude prices below $22 a barrel. Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) is pushing a $5-a-barrel fee that would begin to phase out if the price rose above $25 a barrel and would disappear after the price reached $30 a barrel.
Both proposals include a higher fee on imported refined products to provide additional protection for U.S. refiners. Wallop would add $3 a barrel; Boren, $10 a barrel. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) is a cosponsor of both bills. Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) also favors an import fee, as does ranking committee Democrat Russell B. Long (D-La.).
All the sponsors are from oil-producing states. Committee members from other parts of the country generally oppose the idea. For example, Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) said, "It's an incredible windfall for the domestic oil producers. I don't see what benefit there is to the nation in that. And it would be extremely inflationary."
This split mirrors the different economic impact a fee would have in various regions. Areas such as New England that are heavy users of oil products would pay higher prices but get little of the benefits flowing to the domestic oil industry. Oil-producing areas in the Southwest also are heavy oil consumers, but they would share in the gains of the domestic producers.
Greenspan, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, noted that a fee on oil imports would raise the cost of chemical products made from oil, of which the United States is a substantial exporter. Higher oil prices could have a significant impact on many lower-cost products, he said.
Nevertheless, Greenspan believes that the fee ought to be looked at as a possible revenue source. "It is the least worst of the available political decisions," he declared. "Whether it's desirable is another question."
Another former CEA chairman, Murray L. Weidenbaum of Washington University, who also testified before the Finance Committee last week, said he would not impose an oil import fee because it would worsen the U.S. competitive position.
John Makin, a tax economist at the American Enterprise Institute, opposes the proposal. "I really think the energy tax is just a habit of thought," he said. "There was a lot of talk about it in the late 1970s. People have reports and studies, and they dust them off. I don't think that's a good way to go."
Charles L. Schultze of the Brookings Institution, Weidenbaum's predecessor at the CEA, flatly opposes an oil import fee. Falling oil prices "will take some or all of the sting out of the falling dollar," he said. Putting on a fee "would undo some of the good things" that lower prices will produce.
A $5-a-barrel fee would generate about $10 billion in additional revenue, Schultze estimated. "If that was the last $10 billion needed for a decent budget package to reduce the deficit , I'd hold my nose and buy it, but I would not advocate it," he said.
However, the Senate Finance Committee is looking at a fee primarily as a way of making Reagan-backed changes such as reducing the top personal income tax rate from a proposed 38 percent to 35 percent -- it is now 50 percent -- and increasing the current $1,080 personal exemption to $2,000 for all but the highest-income taxpayers.
Other changes Reagan is seeking include a corporate income tax rate of 33 percent instead of the 36 percent in the House bill. The president and some committee members also want to reduce depreciation allowances on business investments in new plants and equipment significantly less than did the House.
Harvard University economist Martin Feldstein, another former CEA chairman, strongly advocates reducing investment incentives by less than what the House has proposed. In order to do that, while still keeping the tax revision measure from generally neither raising more or less revenue than current law, Feldstein would use the fee. "It's a good tradeoff," he said, adding, "It would be better still to have a combination of an oil import fee and a gasoline tax, with heavier weight on the gasoline tax." Feldstein is much less enthusiastic about using part of the revenue from an import fee to offset revenue lost by reducing the top marginal rate for individuals from 38 percent to 35 percent.
Most of the discussion in recent months about an oil import fee has been in the context of raising revenue to reduce the large continuing federal budget deficits. It was in that vein that President Reagan included a $5-a-barrel fee on both imported and domestic oil in a contingency tax package he proposed in early 1983. That package -- which he later let be known he did not want to have passed -- would have gone into effect only if several conditions were met, including prior enactment of major spending cuts.
Recent public statements by some of the major oil companies, including a Mobil Corp. advertisement in today's Washington Post, generally oppose the fee as a way of cutting deficits. Mobil calls the fee "a dud" because of its inflationary and competitive consequences for the American economy.
An Exxon Corp. statement declares, "These additional fees, which are in effect taxes, would increase consumer prices, increase inflation and reduce real gross national product. In addition, they would distort competition among fuels, place energy-intensive U.S. manufacturing industries at a competitive disadvantage against foreign competition and fall inequitably on different regions of the country . . .
"If it is determined that tax increases are necessary, however, they should be as broad-based as possible."
Former Treasury tax economist Harvey Galper has been invited by the Finance Committee to testify this week on the impact of taxes on international competition and capital formation. Galper said he plans to tell the committee that the most solid way to improve America's competitive position and to increase capital formation is not by providing larger investment incentives through the tax code -- especially if the price is imposition of an oil import fee -- but rather to increase national saving. And he said that the best way to increase the amount of savings available for investment is to reduce federal budget deficits.