Politics & Policy

McCain’s Costly Tax on Energy

Some facts voters in Michigan, and beyond, might want to consider.

Raleigh, N.C. – What do John McCain, Environmental Defense, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Pew Center on Climate Change have in common? They have united to support a massive new tax increase on energy — which will raise costs throughout the economy and threaten the vitality of, among others, the oil and automobile industries.

I suspect that many who would be significantly harmed by McCain’s wrongheaded tax plan — say, blue-collar workers in Michigan — have never heard of it. The Arizona senator’s position on federal tax cuts is better known. Nearly all of his opponents in the presidential campaign have criticized him for voting against both of President Bush’s tax-reduction plans. What is not widely understood is that he is currently sponsoring legislation that, in the name of fighting global warming, would dramatically raise the tax on all carbon-based fuels, including gasoline, home heating oil, coal, and to a lesser extent, natural gas.

The proposed bill, co-sponsored with Joe Lieberman, mandates an energy-rationing scheme that all economists acknowledge is equivalent to a broad-based energy tax which is similar to Bill Clinton’s 1993 Btu tax proposal. Energy would be taxed through the back door by placing a cap on the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that energy-producing companies can emit. It puts a legal limit on the amount of energy that can be drawn from conventional sources such as oil, coal, and natural gas.

McCain’s energy tax would kick in whenever an energy-producing company wants to expand its output above the cap. If, for example, a utility company that is bumping up against its emissions cap wants to increase its production of electricity generated from coal, oil, or natural gas, it will have to buy permission to do so by purchasing unused permits from other companies. The same would be true of an oil refiner that wants to increase its output of gasoline or home heating oil, possibly to meet new consumer demand. The purchase price of the permits is a tax, and will have the same effects as a tax on the market; it would raise the price of the energy source, i.e. coal, oil, etc., and therefore, it would likewise raise the costs of all production that relies on those sources, as well as the price of all goods and services that those production processes generate.

The EPA has estimated what the McCain energy tax would mean to consumers. Since the bill’s provisions are phased in, the full cost of the tax would not be felt for a number of years. But in a letter to Senator McCain dated July 2007, the EPA estimated that the tax will be about $.26 cents in current dollars per gallon of gasoline by 2030 and $.68 cents per gallon by 2050. For electricity, the EPA estimates that the McCain energy tax would increase individual’s electric bills by 22 percent in 2030 and 25 percent in 2050.

The effect on the economy of the McCain tax would be similar to any other broad-based tax. In the EPA’s own words:

The present value of the cumulative reduction in real GDP for the 2012-2030 period ranges from $660 billion to $2.1 trillion…the cumulative reduction in the present value of real GDP for the 2012-2050 period ranges from about $1.6 trillion to $5.2 trillion.

The real surprise is that in a Republican primary in which Senator McCain’s anti-tax credentials are in question, none of his opponents have even mentioned his advocacy of this new broad-based energy tax. I will leave it to political pundits to speculate on the reasons why. But if it is thought that the climate change benefits will be worth these significant new costs on consumers and producers — think again. Over the next 100 years, the CO2 reductions from the tax will result in a temperature change that even its proponents concede, is so small as to be virtually undetectable by current technologies.

Higher energy costs will, among other things, raise the cost of manufacturing big-ticket items in American factories. And higher gas prices will likely raise demand for those classes of automobiles that tend to be manufactured overseas. Somehow, I think Michigan voters will be less than thrilled about this, should anyone bother to inform them.

– Roy Cordato, an economist, is vice president for research and resident scholar at the John Locke Foundation, a public-policy think tank in North Carolina.


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