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Buried in the Bush budget...
A handout for oil companies

By Alan Maass | February 24, 2006 | Page 16

OIL COMPANIES like ExxonMobil are raking in record profits, larger by themselves than the gross domestic product of whole countries.

But that hasn't stopped the oil bosses from looking to the U.S. government for a corporate welfare handout. And they're about to get away with billions more.

According to a report in the New York Times, the companies will get to pump about $65 billion in oil and natural gas from federal territory over the next five years--without paying any royalties to the government. The figures come from projections buried in the Bush administration's budget plan for the Interior Department.

According to the White House's own statistics, the royalties should add up to more than $7 billion between this year and 2011--enough to cover most of the administration's planned cuts in veterans services, or almost half of spending reductions in the Medicaid health program for the poor. Instead, the money will line the pockets of the oil companies--even while oil prices are expected to remain above $50 a barrel.

Administration officials claim the windfall is the result of laws dating back to the Clinton administration. With oil prices much lower, Congress approved financial incentives to encourage exploration and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, where the companies claim the risk and costs are high.

Now, the Times reported, the incentives "have ballooned to levels that have alarmed even ardent supporters of the oil and gas industry, partly because of added sweeteners approved during the Clinton administration, but also because of ambiguities in the law that energy companies have successfully exploited in court."

And this could be just the start. Energy giant Kerr-McGee filed a court challenge earlier this month that would cost the government four times more in lost royalties--another $28 billion. If the suit is successful, about 80 percent of all oil and gas pumped from federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico would be royalty-free.

The biggest producers of Gulf oil include Shell, BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil--all of them enjoying record profits. "It's one of the greatest train robberies in the history of the world," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who has opposed the royalty concessions since the 1990s, told the Times. "It's the gift that keeps on giving."

White House officials say there's nothing they can do about the giveaway--that they inherited the problem from the Clinton administration. That's not true--the White House could support new taxes on the oil industry that make up the money.

In fact, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate together passed a one-year windfall profits tax on oil companies worth $5 billion to the federal government. But true to form, Bush and House Republicans are trying to kill the legislation before it gets to Bush's desk.

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