WASHINGTON The House approved $18 billion in new taxes on the largest oil companies Wednesday as Democrats cited record oil prices and rising gasoline costs in a time of economic troubles.
The money collected over 10 years would provide tax breaks for wind, solar and other alternative energy sources and for energy conservation. The legislation, approved 236-182, would cost the five largest oil companies an average of $1.8 billion a year over that period, according to an analysis by the House Ways and Means Committee. Those companies earned $123 billion last year.
Senate Democratic leaders said they would put the bill on a fast track and try to avoid a Republican filibuster. The White House said the bill unfairly takes aim at the oil industry. President Bush is expected to veto the legislation if it passes Congress.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., noted it was two years ago, when oil cost $55 a barrel, when Bush said oil companies need no government subsidies to pursue more oil or gas.
"With the price of oil hovering around $100, do we really believe this incentive is justified?" asked Hoyer. "Do these companies need taxpayer subsidies to look for new product? They don't need any incentive."
Republicans said the measure unfairly targeted a single industry.
"It punishes the oil and gas industry. This is wrongheaded. It will result in higher prices at the gasoline pump. It's spiteful and wrong," said Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La.
The top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, which developed the tax proposals, he cited statistics that show that oil companies already pay more taxes than many other industries.
Hoyer acknowledged "this legislation alone will not bring down gas prices." But he said the measure will provide a needed boost to alternative energy industries solar, wind, biofuels, and geothermal and help promote energy conservation. "That may bring down gas prices three years from now, 10 years from now," he said.
The bill would roll back two lucrative tax breaks for the five largest U.S. oil companies. One helps manufacturers compete against foreign companies; the other gives American companies a tax credit related to oil and gas extraction outside the country. Democrats estimated that those current breaks would save the oil companies $17.65 billion in taxes over the next 10 years.
The House-passed bill would use that money to promote renewable energy industries such as wind, solar and cellulosic ethanol plants by extending tax credits that recently expired or are scheduled to end at year's end.
The bill would offer tax credits for more energy efficient homes and a credit for "plug-in" gas-electric hybrid cars that would capture electricity off the power grid, once such cars become available in showrooms.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the shift of tax benefits from oil to alternative energy development was critical to increased energy independence and lowering energy costs. "We have the opportunity to invest in clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency," she said.
She noted the House twice last year passed similar tax plans, but they died in the Senate. Since then, the price of gasoline has climbed and large oil companies have made record profits, Pelosi said.
During debate, Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., urged lawmakers to "stop the madness of subsidizing oil companies" when the industry earned $123 billion last year.
The oil industry has lobbied intensely against the House tax legislation, calling it a "discriminatory bill" that targets companies that already pay considerable taxes. "New taxes ... will even further reduce our energy security by discouraging new domestic oil and natural gas production and refinery capacity expansions," the American Petroleum Institute said in a statement.
But other energy industries and energy efficiency advocates have campaigned for the legislation because of the tax incentives that would be directed their way.
"These incentives must be extended immediately to void significant harm to the development of clean energy industries in the United States," said a letter to lawmakers from more than 100 businesses, electric utilities, environmental groups and energy efficiency advocates.
A similar tax proposal passed the House last summer, but it was abandoned in the Senate where Democrats couldn't muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster. Senate Democrats were maneuvering to avoid a repeat of that with the newly passed House measure.
The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, said Democratic leaders are considering advancing the House bill under fast-track procedures related to the budget. This process would not permit an indefinite GOP stall.
The White House says singling out the oil companies for higher taxes "would reduce the nation's energy security rather than improve it" and "lead to higher energy costs to U.S. consumers and business."
Senior advisers would urge Bush to veto the bill should it pass Congress, the White House said in a statement before the House vote.