PERHAPS YOU have acquired an impression that the current tax bill contains gross, disproportionate and unwarranted breaks for oil producers. Sen. Robert J. Dole wishes to correct that impression. These tax breaks will not benefit concentrated wealth, he indignantly assured the Senate the other day. They are only intended to give me helping hand to the "Mom and Pop" independents.
Some Mom. And Pop. Some $2 billion a year in tax reductions for people and corporations whose oil properties are already bringing them far more than they ever had any reason to expect.
There's nothing to be done about it now, for the bill has been passed by both houses and is on its way to the president. But the oil tax reductions deserve special notice and denunciation as not merely bad policy but a betrayal.
The oil windfall tax was part of an explicit bargain that led to the decontrol of oil prices. President Carter was right to begin decontrolling oil, but he was also right to think that some of the enormous wealth generated by that decision ought to be returned turned to the public. Congress accepted that principle and, in early 1980, enacted it into law. Now, a year and a half later, decontrol is complete, and consumers are paying sharply higher prices. But the producers are trying to back out of their part of the bargain, and Congress is helping them.
These oil tax breaks, you should note, were invented by Congress, not led by the Reagan administration. The breaks were supported by both houses of Congress, and by both parties.The Democrats' version in the House was no less favorable to the producers than the Republicans' in the Senate.
This reduction of some $2 billion a year in the windfall tax is relatively small in relation to the total revenues that the tax collects -- more than $20 billion this year, and larger amoounts projected in the future. But the present retreat sets a precedent of faithlessness that makes you wonder how long the rest of the tax is going to be in effect.
To judge the need for this relaxation, you might recall that in the spring of 1979, when Mr. Carter first proposed the windfall tax, the uncontrolled world price of oil was $15 a barrel.Becaue of the Iranian revolution, it is now $35. If it is newly discovered oil, the windfall tax is now around $4 a barrel. You will observe that the current price to the producer, even after the windfall tax, is twice the before-tax price at the time mr. Carter laid before Congress the tax-and-decontrol bargain.
Equity is not the only reason for the windfall tax. It was also designed to slow down, in a modest degree, the flow of wealth into the oil industry from evry other sector of American business. With the price increases of the past two years, that flow is running at a much higher level than anyone could have expected in early 1979. The sums of money being recklessly thrown into the struggle for Conoco, for example, have reached a scale requiring any thoughtful person, including thoughtful persons in the Reagan administration, to wonder whether this is the moment to reduce taxes on oil production.