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With so much at stake, the synfuelers have pumped money into a campaign to preserve their tax break. At the center of the synfuel lobby in Washington is a consortium called the Council for Energy Independence. It's a name worthy of the most successful Washington lobbies, in which private interests camouflage their mission under the banner of a worthy-sounding cause. The council is directed by one of Washington's premier tax lobbyists, Kenneth J. Kies, managing director of the Clark Consulting Federal Policy Group. A former chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the congressional panel that oversees the drafting of tax laws, Kies is well situated to guide legislation that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars a word.
Since 2002, the Council for Energy Independence has spent $2 million lobbying Congress to preserve the tax credit, according to reports filed with the Senate Office of Public Records. Overall, TIME estimates, the synfuel lobby has spent more than $5 million during that same period. The effort has got results. In recent years, the lobby has successfully turned aside efforts to revoke the IRS rulings on which the tax credits are calculated. It beat back an effort in the House Ways and Means Committee last year to send a bill to the House floor that would have virtually eliminated the tax credit. The bill's sponsor, Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, called the tax credit "one of the worst tax loopholes on the books" and described the synfuel industry as "basically a sham." Nevertheless, because of industry lobbying, Doggett's bill has never made it out of committee.
Last November the lobby scored a remarkable coup. Buried deep in a bill called the Tax Relief Act of 2005, passed by the Senate on Nov. 18, was Section 559, titled "Modification of Credit for Producing Fuel from a Nonconventional Source."
Section 559 begins on page 317 of the bill and is written in the obscure jargon of all special-interest tax breaks--almost impossible to decipher, so bewildering is its language. At first glance, it looks like nothing more than a technical amendment to clarify some arcane section of tax law. But one clause offers a clue. It says the synfuel credit will be based not on current oil prices--the yardstick used in the past--but on "the amount which was in effect for sales in calendar year 2004."
In 2004 oil prices were safely below the line to allow synfuel producers to claim the maximum credit. The stealth amendment would roll back the calendar. (Sort of like your missing the deadline for your mortgage payment, then backdating your check to avoid a late charge. But much more lucrative.) The backdating clause was in a larger bill introduced in the Senate by Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who heads the Senate Finance Committee. It was inserted in the Tax Relief Act, which provides aid for Hurricane Katrina victims and sets new policies for tax-exempt groups. With so many higher profile issues at stake, the clause on synfuels sailed right through with no discussion. Many lawmakers, if not most, don't even know it's there.