Depletion allowances let oil companies treat the oil in the ground as capital equipment, and thus allows them to write off a certain percentage for each barrel that comes out. (See more here.)
The year 1913 marked the first time a Big Oil subsidy was written into the tax code. The Revenue Act of 1913 allowed oil companies to write off 5 percent of the costs from oil and gas wells beginning March 1 of that year. (For reference, see pages 172-174 of the Act.) A century later, oil companies can now deduct three times this rate, at 15 percent, although the very largest companies no longer qualify. The percentage depletion subsidy also increases when prices are high, at the same time that oil companies enjoy greater profit. It can even eliminate all federal taxes for independent producers.
A Center for American Progress report estimated that closing this tax break would save $11.2 billion over 10 years.
President Obama has called on Congress to eliminate the percentage depletion allowance, along with a series of other tax breaks totaling $4 billion annually. Even Ronald Reagan once asked for the same in a 1985 speech on tax reform:
“Under our new tax proposal the oil and gas industry will be asked to pick up a larger share of the national tax burden. The old oil depletion allowance will be dropped from the tax code except for wells producing less than 10 barrels a day. By eliminating this special preference, we’ll go a long way toward ensuring that those that earn their wealth in the oil industry will be subject to the same taxes as the rest of us.”
However, congressional Republicans taking the lion’s share of oil and gas industry contributions have refused to close century-old loopholes in order to raise revenue. A number of specialized Big Oil tax breaks allow the top oil companies to cut their tax bill dramatically, sometimes half (or less) of the top corporate rate. It is not as if Big Oil is struggling: Last year, the five largest oil companies — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil — earned $118 billion profit at a time when consumers paid record-high gas prices. This haul follows after a year the companies earned a record $137 billion profit.