THE SENATORS from the oil states vehemently denounce President Carter's windfall tax on oil as outrageous, confiscatory and crippling. They are grossly wrong. It is none of those things, even in the stronger version that the House passed in June. The bellowing and filibustering in the Senate has been in support of the far weaker tax reported by the Finance Committee, under the able chairmanship of Sen. Russell Long (D-La.). The Senate now seems to have reached a compromise that falls well short of the stronger and better House bill.
Numbers can illustrate the issue more clearly than adjectives. In 1973, just before the first round of huge oil price increases, the total value of all oil produced in the United States -- adjusted for inflation into today's dollars -- was $27 billion. Although production has declined slightly, the total value of U.S. production this year will be about $48 billion. Since decontrolled oil already sells for about $30 a barrel, let's assume -- conservatively -- that it goes no higher by 1981, when price controls expire.
At that point, the total value of U.S. oil production will soar to $110 billion a year. That, you will observe, is four times the producers' total gross revenues in 1973, and more than twice their present revenues. That is an increase of some $60 billion over the present level. The debate in the Senate has been how to divide that $60 billion in additional revenues between an industry that is already notably prosperous and the public treasury. b
By way of comparison, what's your idea of a large industry? Automobiles? Sixty billion dollars is roughly the total value of all U.S. automobile production in a typical year. In terms of the revenue flows in even very large businesses, $60 billion is a huge number. This $60 billion would certainly not all be profit to the American oil producers. It would be gross income, and they would have to pay income taxes, royalties and operating costs out of it. But financial power involves more than net profit, and this vast diversion of funds to one industry would inflict severe and undesirable distortions on the American economy.
If the final windfall tax were as weak as the Finance Committee's bill, what would the industry do with the money? Some of it would go into exploration and new wells. The first effect would be a surge of oil-field inflation as the companies bid against each other -- as they did in 1974 -- for scarce drilling equipment and labor. Then, with the rapid expansion of exploration, companies would run out of the good geological prospects and begin drilling the marginal and dubious ones. That's pure waste.
Instead, perhaps, the oil producers would begin to put some of their new money into the purchase of other companies and expansion into other industries. That would make them a menance to competition, as they went after other businesses with less lavish resources.
The compromise that has emerged in the Senate errs on the side of charity toward the oil producers. The higher the prices of oil go, the better the case for the House bill and its higher rates. The outcome will influence the future not only of the oil industry but of the entire American economy.