The rig operator is one of dozens of oil companies and contractors now claiming hundreds of millions of dollars in tax rebates. They are employing a provision of the $2.2 trillion stimulus law, called the CARES act, that gives them more latitude to deduct recent losses.
“This is a stealth bailout for the oil and gas industry,” said
The change wasn’t aimed only at the oil industry. However, its structure uniquely benefits energy companies that were raking in record profits in 2018 as crude prices reached $76.41 per barrel, only to see their fortunes flip a year later.
More than $1.9 billion in CARES Act tax benefits are being claimed by at least 37 oil companies, service firms and contractors, according to a
Other oil companies say they didn’t lobby Congress for the change, which is widely available across all industries. “We did not request any benefit, but we are obligated to follow the tax laws as passed by Congress, which apply to all corporate manufacturers nationwide,” said
Congress embedded the tax change governing losses in the stimulus measure early on, as lawmakers moved rapidly in March to steer trillions of dollars in aid to coronavirus-ravaged workers and companies. Alongside expanded unemployment payments and payroll loan programs, lawmakers saw an opportunity to harness the tax code to help get cash flowing to companies struggling to pay rent, workers and insurance.
It “was sold as help for the little guy -- help for small business,” said Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “In the name of ‘small business,’ we’re shoveling out billions of dollars to big corporations and rich guys.”
The provision loosened rules governing how businesses deduct net operating losses -- incurred when deductible expenses exceed gross income. For years, companies were able to apply those net operating loss deductions to previous tax returns as well as going forward -- but Congress ruled out retroactive relief as part of the 2017 tax cut law.
That new forward-focused approach works well when the economy is expanding, but the promise of using today’s losses as tomorrow’s deductions isn’t much help to coronavirus-battered companies with no guarantee they will survive long enough to claim them. So in the stimulus package, Congress gave businesses the chance to carry back all their losses -- and claim immediate tax refunds -- for five years from 2018, 2019 and 2020.
“The thought was temporarily we should bring them back so that firms that are seeing significant losses in the next year or over the past year or two can carry those back and get some short-term liquidity,” said Garrett Watson, a senior policy analyst at the
Traditionally, the ability to deduct net operating losses is meant to ensure companies get fair tax treatment even amid volatility, Watson said -- a plus for the notoriously boom-and-bust oil industry. “You are going to see the biggest benefits for firms like oil and gas that are seeing volatile profits -- and now, of course, extreme losses,” he said.
The combination of big losses now and the congressional tax changes mean it may be years before some oil companies have to pay corporate income taxes at all.
“We’re going to have some large losses this year,”
There’s no limit on how the new refunds can be used -- and even bankrupt firms can get them.
Consider Diamond Offshore. Once one of the world’s largest drilling rig contractors, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on April 26 after crude prices plunged along with demand for its high-tech drillships.
In a first quarter filing, Diamond, which is majority owned by
The company said at the time that deteriorating market conditions and the collapse of Diamond’s stock had made its existing equity-based bonus program “largely worthless.” The tax filing did not specify how the $9.7 million would be used.
Dozens of other oil businesses have reported reaping the benefits, including $55 million for Denver-based
Occidental Petroleum, which
Millions in Refunds
San Antonio-based refiner
Valero spokeswoman Lillian Riojas said that is tied to tax losses generated in the first quarter, since the company did not generate a net operating loss for federal income tax purposes in 2018 or 2019. And she said the actual refund will be dependent “not only on the company’s performance for the remainder of the year, but also on the impact” of other tax provisions.
The benefits are “turbo-charged,” said Rosenthal, with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. That’s because businesses can carry back losses to offset income at a higher corporate tax rate of 35%, before the 2017 tax cut law lowered it 14 points. “Getting those losses at 35% is very, very favorable -- especially in 2020 when the losses are going to be devastatingly large.”
The filings themselves reveal only part of the picture. Private companies are able to generate tax refunds too -- without disclosing it to the
For instance, refiner
The importance of the provision hasn’t been lost on President
Congressional tax analysts initially estimated that the expanded loss carryback provision would cost $25 billion over 10 years -- just when used by corporations. Now, some are questioning whether the final pricetag could be much higher, and Democrats are seeking to limit the value of the tax break after raising concerns it overwhelmingly helps corporations and the wealthy.
In a new stimulus bill advanced Tuesday,
Rosenthal stressed that it was logical for Congress to help businesses that were profitable before the pandemic. “But the CARES Act goes too far, tilting its benefits overwhelmingly to the wealthiest Americans,” he said in an essay. “I think Congress did not know the extent of what it was doing.”
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