Baucus proposal replaces dozens of energy breaks with credits for ‘clean’ fuel, electricity

Source: Nick Juliano, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Senate’s top tax writer unveiled a radical proposal today to eliminate dozens of deductions, credits and other incentives for the energy industry and replace them with two provisions designed to promote clean electricity and transportation fuels and another credit for carbon capture and sequestration.

Sen. Max Baucus’ proposal is the latest entry in his push for comprehensive tax reform, and it represents the most dramatic effort in recent memory to refocus with the array of incentives for oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear and renewable energy toward an overarching goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Montana Democrat said his draft would strip away provisions that simply pick “winners and losers” without advancing rational policy goals.

“We need a system of incentives that is more predictable, rational, and technology-neutral to increase our energy security and ensure a clean and healthy environment for future generations,” Baucus said in a statement.

The draft package generally takes aim at 42 existing energy tax incentives — of which some are permanent in the code and others, such as the production tax credit or various biofuels incentives, are typically renewed every few years.

Extending those provisions would cost about $150 billion over the next decade, but the proposals unveiled today and in an earlier draft that would eliminate several lucrative oil and gas incentives should cut that figure by more than half, Finance Committee aides said today.

At the center of today’s proposal are two “technology-neutral” tax credits for electricity or fuels. They are modeled on existing incentives, but instead of targeting particular industries, they apply to any technology that can meet certain greenhouse gas emission and energy efficiency targets.

The proposal also would eliminate many prized energy incentives, especially those aimed at promoting energy-efficient homes and appliances, electric vehicles and advanced manufacturing. Many of those credits have strong backing among senior Democrats such as Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who leads the Finance Subcommittee on Energy, Natural Resources and Infrastructure and is among the biggest backers of the clean manufacturing credit, and Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon, who championed electric motorcycle credits last year during committee consideration of an earlier tax bill.

Finance aides said the idea was to clean out provisions that did not provide an adequate return on investment and to refocus toward a goal of cleaning up the energy sector rather than promoting targeting industries.

“Staff made this choice in order to target tax incentives on areas that appear to have the largest bang-for-the-buck in reducing air pollution and enhancing energy security, given concerns about overlapping regulations and spending programs, compliance costs, and the potential for fraud or abuse,” according to a summary of the proposal.

For electricity production, any facility whose emissions intensity is 25 percent below the U.S. average would be eligible for a production or investment tax credit whose value would be determined by their emissions profile.

U.S. EPA would be tasked with determining the emissions profiles for various energy sources, and committee staff acknowledged that more information is needed from the agency in certain areas, such as determining the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions created by biomass electricity.

The emissions profile of natural gas would depend on where the fuel was used — for gas-fired power plants, only emissions at the plant itself would be considered, but a life-cycle calculation would be used in cases where natural gas serves as a transportation fuel.

A zero-emissions facility — such as a wind farm, solar facility or nuclear plant — would be eligible for a production credit of $23 per megawatt-hour through the first 10 years of a facility’s life, the same level as the current PTC. Or it could claim a one-time investment credit worth 20 percent of a facility’s costs, compared to the existing 30 percent ITC. 

The proposal seems to represent a big win for the nuclear industry, especially, which produces zero-emissions electricity but is not currently eligible for the PTC. Natural gas producers also would likely be able to claim at least a partial tax credit, aides said.

For transportation fuels, credits would be awarded based on a fuel’s life-cycle emissions and its energy content, both compared to traditional gasoline. The fuel production credit would max out at $1 per gallon for an emissions-free fuel that produced as much energy as traditional gasoline, about the level provided by existing credits for second-generation biofuels, biodiesel and biodiesel mixtures. As with electricity, producers could instead choose to take a 20 percent investment tax credit.

Both credits would take effect beginning in 2017 with the bill proposing extending certain temporary tax credits through then to transition.

For electricity, the proposal would extend the existing Section 45 PTC, Section 48 ITC and Section 25D credit for residential renewable energy investments, such as rooftop solar panels or geothermal heat pumps. The proposal also would extend existing credits for advanced biofuels, biodiesel and mixtures until 2017.

Also included in the package — but not addressed in much detail in today’s summary — is an investment tax credit for existing power plants that add carbon capture and sequestration technology. The proposal includes a proposed investment credit for facilities where CCS systems “capture at least 50 percent of their previous carbon dioxide emissions,” according to the summary. The committee requests comments on whether that threshold is appropriate and whether the credit should be based on performance.

The proposal does not include a direct tax on CO2 emissions, as some climate activists would like to see, but it does request comments on whether such a tax should be considered.

Comments are due to the committee by Jan. 31, although aides said it was not clear how quickly the proposal could formally come before the committee to be marked up.

The proposal throws into question what happens next year if Congress is unable to complete comprehensive tax reform and is faced with having to advance a narrower “tax extenders” package to continue numerous temporary extenders, which apply to myriad sectors of the economy outside of energy, as well.

Such a package would likely include things like the PTC and other credits that Baucus wants to see extended in tax reform, but today’s proposal leaves in doubt what would happen to expiring incentives for efficient buildings and electric vehicles that Baucus proposes to ax. Aides said the chairman remains focused on tax reform and has not decided how to approach a potential extenders bill but that senators are free to make their case for particular extenders in the coming months.

Click here to read a summary of the draft proposal.

Click here to read a shorter, one-page summary.