As Congress nears the end of its long effort to pass a windfall profits tax on oil, there appears to be great danger that the main objective of energy policy will go by the boards. That is adequate attention to energy -- conserving it and producing more of it here at home. Only in this way can the United States reduce its dependence on uncertain oil imports and thereby improve its economic position and strengthen its defense.
The administration and Congress are trying to complete a triple play: 1) phased decontrol of domestic oil prices; 2) a windfall profits tax to prevent oil companies from making an unjustified killing from decontrol; and 3) the use of the new tax revenues to help solve the energy price and shortage problem, which gave rise to the price decontrol and windfall tax in the first place.
The first two parts of the triple play are moving nicely; the third is in trouble. But there is a chance to complete the play if, before final action on the windfall profits tax bill, Congress will recommend that a substantial portion of the resulting revenues be set aside for energy conservation and production rather than dedicated to other purposes, however worthy.
The House-Senate conference committee, having agreed that the windfall tax should bring in $227 billion or more over about a 10-year period, has laid out a program for use of the new revenue that provides far too little for energy. Sixty percent is proposed for individual and corporate tax reduction, 25 percent for payments to those with lower incomes to offset higher energy prices, and only the remaining 15 percent for energy and transit.
The cart is before the horse: 50 percent should go to energy and 25 percent to help those who will most meed help in meeting higher gasoline, heating and electric bills. The remaining 25 percent should be deposited in the general fund of the Treasury and be available for other purposes, such as deficit reduction.
Some argue that the much higher prices of crude oil and its products are enough to get consumers to conserve more and producers to produce more. These responses to higher prices are biting in, but much too little and too slowly. Energy conservation and production need to be put up front and made dramatic so there can be no doubt where our priorities lie. Setting aside half of the windfall tax revenues for energy would be this. Furthermore, many of the new energy sources (like synfuels) cannot be moved forward rapidly without government support.
Others argue that $115 billion or more could not be utilized effectively for energy conservation and development during the next decade. This is not the case. Congressional budget staffs estimate that various administration energy proposals, some of which have received preliminary approval of Congress, come to $140 kto $260 billion. Included are $70 to $90 billion for conservation, $20 to $88 billion for synfuels, $40 to $50 billion for the strategic petroleum reserve, and $16 to $30 billion for mass transportation. Furtrhermore, new ideas for energy will certainly appear during the next 10 years.
Finally, setting aside 60 percent of the windfall tax for income-tax reduction, as the conference committee proposes, would contribute heavily to inflation and add significantly to the budget deficit. The best way to cope with the energy shortage and the resulting inflation surely is to provide the funds to produce more energy from domestic sources and to use energy more efficiently.
The conference committee, and the Congress, after months of laboring, are about to produce a windfall tax that is good and an indicated use of the tax revenues that is not good -- not good because it will lead to very little additional energy and a lot more inflation. It is still not too late to send out a different signal. The American people will understand and, I believe, accept both higher energy prices and the windfall tax if somehow, out of it all, they get more energy supply, a check on rising energy prices, more incentive to conserve, and a safer world in which to live.