Behind the dry legal language of yesterday's Supreme Court decision on Louisiana's national gas tax lies the emotional issue of whether a handful of energy-producing states will become an American OPEC.
The fight is part of the growing regional warfare in the United State, a struggle over people, resources and money in which hugh amounts of wealth already have been redistributed from North to South and East to West.
How the economic benefits of domestic energy production are divided is the heart of the issue raised in the Louisiana case. The court rules yesterday that Louisina's tax unconstitutionally restricted free commerce between the states. But the issue will resurface later this year in a Supreme Court case involving Montana's 30 percent coal severance tax, and in other fights between the energy haves and have-nots.
The struggle between energy-producing and energy-consuming states is perhaps the most divisive of regional issues now confronting the nation. To the energy-consuming states, many in the Northeast and Midwest, the severance taxes imposed by energy-rich states are simple parochial greed, a begger-thy-neighbor policy that will accelerate not only the flow of riches but also the loss of economic opportunities from a region battered by the breakdown of its basic industries to a region in a strong economic position.
To the states lucky enough to sit on top of oil, natural gas or coal deposits, the view is similarly polarized. The energy-rich states argue that they are being asked to solve the energy crisis for the nation, often at a cost of great economic and social dislocation. For them, the severance tax is a way to export some of the costs associated with the rapid increase in energy production, an opportunity to force consumers in other states to pay for the roads and schools and sewers that must be built to accommodate a growing population.
Because most of Montana's coal is exported, roughly 86 percent of the severance tax is paid by consumers in other states. Similarly, the Louisiana tax was designed explicitly to be paid by consumers from other states, one of the aspects the court found particularly offensive.
At a time when many states are suffering from the recession, the tax revolt and the implications of President Reagan's budget cuts, states rich in energy resources are enjoying a bonanza. Just six states -- Alaska, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Wyoming and Montana -- account for more than 40 percent of the total state budget surpluses in this country. That these states want to boost their revenues by taxing energy consumed in other states is repugnant to states already burdened by the sharp rise in energy prices.
The Supreme Court's decision yesterday is neither the definitive nor the final word in this argument. The Montana case could provide a clearer resolution.
Nor is the severance tax fight a simple Frost Belt versus Sun Belt confrontation. Oil-rich Texas, for example, has joined with other coal-importing states to fight the Montana tax.
Eventually Congress may step in. Had the Louisiana case gone the opposite way, Rep. Robert Edgar (D-Pa.) was prepared to introduce legislation prohibiting the kind of tax imposed by Louisiana on natural gas produced from the Outer Continental Shelf. In addition, legislation has been introduced to limit coal severance taxes to 12.5 percent.
But for now, politicians from the energy have-nots can be expected to await further word from the court before carrying their battle in earnest into the legislative arena.