The wording is so bland and buried so deep within a 324-page budget document that almost no one would notice that a multibillion-dollar scam is going on. Not the members of Congress voting for it and certainly not the taxpayers who will get fleeced by it. And that is exactly the idea.
With Washington reeling from the Abramoff lobbying scandal and Republicans and Democrats alike pledging to crack down on influence peddling, with one lawmaker already gone from Capitol Hill because he traded favors for cash, you're probably guessing this isn't the best time for members of Congress to dispense a fortune in favors to their friends.
Buried in the huge budget-reconciliation bill, on which House and Senate conferees are putting the final touches right now, are a few paragraphs that accomplish an extraordinary feat. They roll back the price of a barrel of crude oil to what it sold for two years ago. They create this pretend price for the benefit of a small group of the politically well connected. You still won't be able to buy gasoline for $1.73 per gal. as you did then, instead of today's $2.28. You still won't be able to buy home heating oil for $1.60 per gal., in place of today's $2.39. But a select group of investors and companies will walk away with billions of dollars in tax subsidies, not from oil but from the marketing of a dubious concoction of synthetic fuel produced from coal and dependent on government tax credits tied to the price of oil.
From 2003 through 2005, TIME estimates, the synfuel industry raked in $9 billion in tax credits. That means the lucky few collectively cut their tax bills by that amount, which would be enough to cover a year's worth of federal taxes for 20 million Americans who make less than $20,000 a year and pay income taxes. How important is the tax credit to synfuel producers? In its latest annual report, Headwaters Inc., a Utah-based purveyor of synfuel processes and substances, says flatly, "Headwaters does not believe that production of synthetic fuel will be profitable absent the tax credits."
To understand why Washington wants to backdate the price of oil for its friends, it's necessary to return to the oil shocks of the 1970s, when long lines formed at gas stations and people dialed down the thermostats in homes and apartments so they could afford to pay their utility bills. In 1980, Congress enacted tax incentives that were designed to spur the development of a synthetic-fuel industry. The goal was to build huge plants using new technologies that would transform raw coal, which the U.S. has in abundance, into synthetic natural gas and oil to heat homes and factories, power cars and--here comes the ever popular bromide--reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. As then House majority leader Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, put it at the time, "[This] will show Americans the nation is moving ahead. We are going to declare our energy independence."
When oil prices fell, Washington lost interest in creating a real synfuel industry, and the grand projects to promote energy independence came to nothing. But the synfuel credit remained on the books, dormant, until a group of enterprising entrepreneurs came across it in the 1990s and saw a way to transform coal into gold.