The Artful Dodgers: Oil Companies
Oil companies are perhaps the original multinationals, with most large firms owning stakes in oil fields and refining facilities in dozens if not hundreds of locations all over the world. Many, like Chevron, ExxonMobil, Valero and ConocoPhillips are based in the United States and trade on American stock exchanges. Top-level American government officials on energy policy consult their chief executives, and, as the BP disaster recently showed, the mismanagement of their activities can lead to extensive costs to the American government and people. Yet these four oil corporations in particular pay almost nothing in federal income taxes. In fact, the oil companies profiled below have benefitted from tax refunds and rebates in profitable years, lucrative government contracts, and substantial subsidies. The Obama administration estimates the federal government would save about $4 billion per year by ending tax subsidies to oil, gas and fossil fuel producers.3
As a direct descendant of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, Texas-based ExxonMobil is one the petroleum industry’s longest-standing corporations and an icon of American business. Yet it is also one of the country’s worst polluters, responsible for the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989 and for the decades-long Greenpoint oil spill in New York. Exxon has also spent widely to promote research by organizations skeptical of global warming science.4
Exxon is also one of America’s most flagrant tax avoiders. According to a report by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the company made $19 billion in profits in 2009 but paid no federal income taxes. In fact, “it actually received a $156 million rebate from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), according to its SEC filings.”5
Perhaps some of that money was recycled back into the government. Over the past ten years Exxon’s PAC and employees have made $5.7 million in federal campaign contributions, with $433,000 of it going directly to members of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees. It also spent $137 million on federal lobbying expenditures over that same period to make sure its voice was being heard as loud as its money.
Based in California and with business interests in 84 countries, Chevron is one of America’s five largest companies. It is also one of its largest tax dodgers, having been accused of evading “$3.25 billion in federal and state taxes from 1970 to 2000 through an involved petroleum pricing scheme that involved a project in Indonesia,” according to CNN.6 More recently, according to the Sanders report, Chevron received a $19 million tax refund on its $10 billion profits from 2009.
Like Exxon, Chevron has made extensive efforts to influence the federal tax code through carefully placed campaign donations and lobbying efforts. Over the past 10 years the company’s PAC and employees have given $4.4 million in contributions, $115,000 to members of the tax-writing committees alone. It also has an active lobbying presence in Washington, spending $91 million over the same time period to influence Congress.
Texas-based ConocoPhillips, owner of such gasoline brands as Conoco and Union 76, is one of the largest oil companies in the world, with 29,900 employees located in 30 countries.7 Like many oil companies in this era of rising gasoline prices, its recent profits have been substantial: $16 billion between 2007 and 2009.8 Business has been going so well, in fact, that it recently gave its CEO, Jim Mulva, a 25 percent raise for total compensation of $17.9 million.9
The company hasn’t been shy about passing out dollars on Capitol Hill either. ConocoPhillips’s PAC and employees have spent $2.5 million over the past ten years on federal campaign contributions. Of that, $119,500 was targeted to members of the House Ways and Means Committee and an additional $70,950 went to the Senate Finance Committee. ConocoPhillips also has an aggressive lobbying operation, spending $63 million over that same time period to influence lawmakers and regulators in Washington.
Unlike Exxon and Chevron, both of which explore for oil, Valero Energy is a petroleum product manufacturer and refiner, with operations throughout North America and the Caribbean. As one of the industry’s largest companies, it is also one of the worst polluters, ranked 16th in the world by the Political Economy Research Institute, and it has been politically active in fighting efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.10 In 2010, Valero spent more than $4 million to support California’s Proposition 23, which would have suspended implementation of the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act.11
Valero also has an extensive federally focused political operation. The company’s PAC and employees have spent $4.1 million over the past ten years on federal campaign contributions, with $294,000 of it going to members of the House and Senate tax-writing committees. Valero’s generous giving has been matched by an equally expensive lobbying operation costing $4.8 million over the same ten-year period.
4. Union of Concerned Scientists (January 3, 2007). Available online: http://www.ucsusa.org/news/press_release/ExxonMobil-GlobalWarming-tobacco.html.
5. “Ten Giant U.S. Companies Avoiding Income Taxes: Sen. Bernie Sanders List,” Chicago Sun-Times (March 27, 2011). Available online: http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2011/03/ten_giant_us_companies_avoidin.html.
6. “Tax Evasion by ChevronTexaco?” CNN (September 13, 2002). Available online: http://money.cnn.com/2002/09/13/news/companies/chevron_texaco/index.htm.
9. “ConocoPhillips CEO's Compensation up 25 Percent,” ABC News (April 4, 2011). Available online: http://abcnews.go.com/Business/wireStory?id=13293879.
10. Political Economy Research Institute (accessed April 12, 2011). , “Environmental Justice and the Toxic 100 Corporations.” Available online: http://www.peri.umass.edu/ej/.