How Large are Federal Oil Subsidies?

Yesterday, I co-authored an op-ed with Peter Van Doren on the Democrats’ energy bill scheduled for a vote today in the House.  The bill is advertised as an exercise to eliminate the subsidies going to “Big Oil” and to use that money instead to subsidize renewable energy (the fact that “Big Oil” is also in the renewable energy business and will simply find that the federal checks are going to different corporate in-boxes has apparently not occurred to anyone, but I digress).  But did the Democrats wipe out all the subsidies, or did they leave some big subsidies behind?

A lot of people think that the Democrats left a lot of money on the table.  Today in the Christian Science Monitor, for example, economist Doug Koplow argues that the biggest subsidy left untouched by Pelosi & Co. relates to the military protection of oil producing facilities and shipping lanes abroad, a mission which costs the taxpayer at least $19 billion a year. 

While the Ds certainly were less than thorough in their anti-oil-subsidy crusade, I’m not so sure that the subsidies are anywhere near as large as many people think.

Quantifying the national security costs associated with ensuring the safe and reliable delivery of foreign oil is difficult.  The Congressional Research Service estimated in 1997 that those costs may be anywhere between $0.5-65 billion, or 1.5 cents to 30 cents per gallon for motor fuel from the Persian Gulf.  Agreement about the extent of the military’s “oil mission” is difficult because military and foreign policy expenditures are generally tasked with multiple missions and objectives, and oil security is simply one mission of many.  Analysts disagree about how to divide those missions into budgetary terms. 

Debate about the size of the U.S. military’s oil mission and related foreign policy expenses, however, is not particularly relevant to a discussion about whether and to what extent oil companies are subsidized by this kind of thing.  From an economic perspective, the key question is whether an elimination of U.S. military and foreign aid expenditures dedicated to “the oil mission” would result in (a) greater corporate expenditures to secure oil from abroad, and/or (b) an increase in the price of oil, and, if so, how much?  That is the true measure of the subsidy if it indeed exists.  That’s because, if the oil mission provides no value to multinational oil companies or oil consumers - as I maintain - than it is not a subsidy.  Measuring the subsidy by the amount of money government spends on the oil mission is at best a measure of how much politicians believe the national security externalities might be.  Political assessments may or may not be accurate.            

To be sure, if the termination of the American “oil mission” implied the termination of all military, police, and court services in the region, petroleum extraction investments would become more risky, extraction of oil might decrease, and prices would increase.  But remember that oil companies in the Middle-East are creatures of government.  So the question is really whether Middle-East governments would produce less oil because the United States ended its oil-related military mission and foreign aid.  Or would oil producing states provide – or pay others to provide – military services to replace those previously provided by the United States?           

I strongly suspect that a cessation of U.S. security assistance would be replaced by security expenditures from other parties.  First, oil producers will provide for their own security needs as long as the cost of doing so results in greater profits than equivalent investments could yield.  Because Middle-Eastern governments typically have nothing of value to trade except oil, they must secure and sell oil to remain viable.  Second, given that their economies are so heavily dependent upon oil revenues, Middle-Eastern governments have even more incentive than we do to worry about the security of production facilities, ports, and sea lanes.  

In short, whatever security our presence provides (and many analysts think that our presence actually reduces security) could be provided by other parties were the United States to withdraw.  The fact that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait paid for 55 percent of the cost of Operation Desert Storm suggests that keeping the Straits of Hormuz free of trouble is certainly within their means.  The same argument applies to Al Qaeda threats to oil production facilities.           

If oil regimes paid for their own military protection and the protection of their own shipping lanes, would U.S. Middle-East military expenditures really go down?  The answer might very well be “no” for two very different reasons.  First, the U.S. Middle-East military presence stems from our implicit commitment to defend Israel as well as the region from Islamic fundamentalism, and those missions would not likely end simply because Arab oil regimes paid for their own economic security needs.  Second, bureaucratic and congressional inertia might leave military expenditures constant regardless of Israeli or petroleum defense needs.              

Thus, U.S. ”oil mission” should not be viewed as a subsidy that lowers oil prices below what they otherwise would be.  Instead, the expenditures are a taxpayer-financed gift to oil regimes and the Israeli government that has little, if any, effect on oil prices or corporate profits.  Now, I’d be happy to see the oil mission go, but “Big Oil” won’t be any poorer for it.