US Treasury secretary attacks oil, gas tax breaks

WASHINGTON, March 4 Wed Mar 4, 2009 9:48pm GMT

WASHINGTON, March 4 (Reuters) - U.S. oil and natural gas producing companies should not receive federal subsidies in the form of tax breaks because their businesses contribute to global warming, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told Congress on Wednesday.

It was one of the sharpest attacks yet on the oil and gas industry by a top Obama administration official, reinforcing the White House stance that new U.S. energy policy will focus on promoting renewable energy sources like wind and solar power and rely less on traditional fossil fuels like oil as America tackles climate change.

"We don't believe it makes sense to significantly subsidize the production and use of sources of energy (like oil and gas) that are dramatically going to add to our climate change (problem). We don't think that's good economic policy and we think changing those incentives is good for the country," Geithner told the Senate Finance Committee at a hearing on the White House's proposed budget for the 2010 spending year.

The Obama administration's budget would levy an excise tax on oil and natural gas produced in the Gulf of Mexico, raising $5.3 billion in revenue from 2011 to 2019.

This new 13 percent tax on all oil and gas production in the Gulf would only affect those companies enjoying a loophole that allows them to avoid paying royalties on the energy supplies they drill. Companies already paying royalties would get a tax credit.

Obama's budget would also place a $4 per acre annual fee on energy leases in the Gulf that are designated as nonproducing. The budget proposal projects the fee would generate $1.2 billion from 2010 to 2019.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas criticized the tax increases, saying they would hurt independent energy companies that provide a large share of U.S. oil and gas supplies.

"My view is that higher taxes on small and independent producers here in America will make us more dependent on imported oil and gas while we transition to cleaner energy alternatives, a goal we all share," said Cornyn. "And it will also hurt job retention and job creation in the energy sector, which provides an awful lot of jobs in this country."

Geithner said the additional taxes "can be absorbed" by the oil and gas companies, given the billions of dollars they have earned from high energy prices.

"The impact of these subsidies are very small relative to revenues produced by U.S. oil and gas producers," he said. (Reporting by Tom Doggett; editing by Jim Marshall)