Energy Tax Policy: History and Current Issues

Publication Date: September 2008

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Banking and finance; Energy



Historically, U.S. federal energy tax policy promoted the supply of oil and gas. However, the 1970s witnessed (1) a significant cutback in the oil and gas industry's tax preferences, (2) the imposition of new excise taxes on oil, and (3) the introduction of numerous tax preferences for energy conservation, the development of alternative fuels, and the commercialization of the technologies for producing these fuels (renewables such as solar, wind, and biomass, and nonconventional fossil fuels such as shale oil and coalbed methane).

The Reagan Administration, using a free-market approach, advocated repeal of the windfall profit tax on oil and the repeal or phase-out of most energy tax preferences -- for oil and gas, as well as alternative fuels. Due to the combined effects of the Economic Recovery Tax Act and the energy tax subsidies that had not been repealed, which together created negative effective tax rates in some cases, the actual energy tax policy differed from the stated policy. The George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton years witnessed a return to a much more activist energy tax policy, with an emphasis on energy conservation and alternative fuels. While the original aim was to reduce demand for imported oil, energy tax policy was also increasingly viewed as a tool for achieving environmental and fiscal objectives. The Clinton Administration's energy tax policy emphasized the environmental benefits of reducing greenhouse gases and global climate change, but it will also be remembered for its failed proposal to enact a broadly based energy tax on Btus (British thermal units) and its 1993 across-the-board increase in motor fuels taxes of 4.3¢/gallon.

The Working Families Tax Relief Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-311) and the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-357) each contained several energy-related tax breaks. The George W. Bush Administration has proposed a limited number of energy tax measures, but the 109th Congress enacted the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-58) -- comprehensive energy legislation that included numerous energy tax incentives to increase the supply of, and reduce the demand for, fossil fuels and electricity. Signed by President Bush on August 8, 2005, it provided a net energy tax cut of $11.5 billion ($14.5 billion gross energy tax cuts, less $3 billion of energy tax increases). The act included tax incentives for energy efficiency in residential and commercial buildings and for more energy efficient vehicles, and tax incentives for several types of alternative and renewable resources, such as solar and geothermal. The current energy tax structure is dominated by revenues from a long-standing gasoline tax (which serves as a quasi user fee for the use of the highway infrastructure), and tax incentives for alternative and renewable fuels supply relative to energy from conventional fossil fuels. Although several additional tax incentives for conventional fossil fuels and electricity were added, the act does not alter the current policy stance favoring renewables on a Btu-corrected basis. This report replaces CRS Issue Brief IB10054, Energy Tax Policy, by Salvatore Lazzari.