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The coal can look and burn like regular coal. The IRS rule for transforming coal into synfuel--and getting the tax credit--requires only that the substance be chemically altered in some way. The alchemy that satisfies the IRS is a simple process: some plants spray newly mined coal with diesel fuel, pine-tar resin, limestone, acid or other substances--a practice that industry critics call "spray and pray." Other operators mix coal-mining waste with chemicals, coat it with latex and blend it with untreated coal to form briquettes. (For an earlier story on the scheme, see "The Great Energy Scam," TIME, Oct. 13, 2003.)
Once a few pioneers started reaping the tax credits, it wasn't long before plants using various techniques sprouted next to coal-burning power plants, which buy the so-called synfuel and use it as they would any other coal. Those synfuel operations were a far cry from the state-of-the-art plants that Congress had envisioned as performing a more radical transformation. Instead, they were flimsy facilities that could be easily dismantled and moved to other locations.
Today about 55 such plants around the U.S. process 125 million tons of coal or, in many cases, coal waste from an earlier mining era. For owners and operators, the whole point isn't creating a profitable new energy resource for the U.S.; it's about collecting the tax subsidy. Progress Energy Inc. of Raleigh, N.C., which owns electric utilities that serve portions of the Carolinas and Florida, reported in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that in 2002-04 its synfuel-production losses added up to $400 million. No problem: the company claimed $852 million in tax credits, magically transforming a money-losing operation into a money-making business with $452 million in profits--courtesy of the American taxpayer. And that's not all. Like other synfuel producers, Progress Energy can't immediately use all the tax credits it mines because of tax-law limitations. As of Dec. 31, 2004, it was sitting on $745 million in deferred credits that it can write off against future earnings for years to come. And Progress Energy is not alone. Plants run by DTE Energy Co. of Detroit generated $1.2 billion in tax credits during the same years.
This was not what Congress had in mind in 1980 when it enacted the subsidy. The idea was to stimulate the birth of a new industry that would make synthetic fuel competitive with the price of conventional oil and gas. To achieve that end, lawmakers pegged the value of the credit to the price of crude oil. If oil prices were to rise above a certain level, the synfuel industry would no longer need the credit to make a profit and the subsidy would be phased out. As long as oil prices were below $50 per bbl., synfuel producers could claim the full value of the credit. But in the past year, as prices have risen to as much as $66 per bbl., anxiety has spread through the synfuel ranks that their boondoggle is imperiled.
Tax experts differ on how high oil prices would have to go to wipe out the full value of the credit, but most agree that if oil were to remain at recent peak levels, or climb even higher, few synfuel operators could claim the full credit. Citing that uncertainty, the Marriott Corp., which has invested in four synfuel plants, temporarily suspended production in January. Before the shutdown, Marriott had racked up $370 million in synfuel profits.