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The Oil and Gas Depletion Allowances and the Effect of Obama’s Proposed Cancellation of Percentage Depletion Allowance

Texas oil and gas attorneys are watching with trepidation as Obama seeks to cripple domestic mineral production with his ill-conceived policies. In our previous post, we discussed the Obama administration’s push to eliminate some of the tax subsidies that oil and gas producers in the United States currently enjoy. One of the subsidies that will be cut — if the President’s Fiscal Year 2012 Budget is approved — is percentage depletion for oil and gas wells, or the “oil depletion allowance” as Speaker Boehner recently called it. According to an article on Texas Insider, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimates that repealing percentage depletion would generate 607 million dollars in 2012, and 11.2 billion dollars over the next decade, in additional tax revenue. While that extra income would surely help the federal government’s bottom line, it is not a smart policy due to the adverse affects it will have on oil and gas exploration and ultimately, retail gas prices. Before we can address these potential effects, however, it is helpful to have an understanding of what the “oil depletion allowance” is.

Depletion allowances let the owner of an asset account for the portion of that product as it is used up. Depletion allowances are similar to depreciation in that they provide cost recovery for capital investments — it is a tax structure to ensure that the financial burden of using resources is not borne by businesses in a lump sum. There are two types of depletion allowances available to oil and gas producers: cost depletion and percentage depletion. Cost depletion allows a taxpayer to recover the actual capital investment through the period of income production of the oil and/or gas reserves, and the cumulative amount recovered through cost depletion cannot exceed the taxpayer’s original capital investment. The other form of depletion is percentage depletion, which allows oil and gas producers and mineral rights owners to recover a portion of the mineral that is used up, or depleted, at a rate of fifteen percent of the average daily gross income from their operation each year. Unlike cost depletion, cumulative depletion deductions under the percentage model can be greater than the original capital investment made to exploit those resources.

The White House’s 2012 budget seeks to eliminate percentage depletion for oil and gas wells, leaving only cost depletion as a means for recovering such capital investment costs for the domestic independent oil and gas industry. The effects of such a change would be substantial. According to the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), removing percentage depletion as an option for small oil producers would force these companies to reduce their drilling budgets anywhere from twenty to thirty-five percent. The IPAA goes on to say that the independent oil industry accounts for almost four million jobs in the United States, and that the elimination of percentage depletion will increase taxes and result in fewer employment opportunities for Americans. Furthermore, the IPAA asserts that the elimination of percentage depletion will increase our nation’s dependence on foreign oil and result in less governmental revenue going forward.

This is yet another example of short-sightedness on the part of the current administration. Yes, eliminating percentage depletion might raise additional revenue in the short run, but at the cost of American jobs and independence from foreign oil, two things that are in short supply these days. It is likewise disheartening to hear Obama decry the depletion allowance as some kind of tax break that only benefits “big oil” (whoever that is), when the largest portion of our domestic oil and gas production comes from small, independent companies.

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