Should California tax oil profits? Gas spike hearing sets stage for contentious debate – Daily News

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California’s leading energy analysts on Tuesday provided a hazy look at the state’s recent gasoline price crisis while revealing that state regulators are “completely in the dark” surrounding key oil industry data that shapes the Golden State’s increasingly volatile gasoline market.

The meeting of the California Energy Commission comes amid a push by Gov. Gavin Newsom to levee a new “windfall profits tax” on oil companies, which will be at the center of a special session in the Legislature this January. On Tuesday, consumer advocates and oil industry representatives launched opening salvos in a bitter debate over whether oil companies are “price gouging” drivers or actually the victim of California’s green policies squeezing out fossil fuel industries.

In a hearing in Sacramento, the California Energy Commission called on state experts to testify on a question that has plagued drivers for decades: Why are gas prices in California so high?

With fuel prices falling nationwide, the state’s average price at the pump Tuesday finally dipped below $5 a gallon for the first time in nearly nine months. But the question of why the Golden State stands out took on new urgency this September after California’s perennial gas woes reached staggering proportions, when gap between what drivers here paid compared to the rest of the country reached $2.60 a gallon – an unprecedented difference even in a state already known for the country’s highest fuel costs.

“We had prices of gasoline that are not OK for Californians,” said Siva Gunda, the commission’s vice chair. In early October, average fuel costs topped $6.40 a gallon.

State analysts on Tuesday outlined a series of conditions, including lower-than-normal gasoline inventories among the state’s oil refiners, lower-than-normal fuel imports, and mechanical hiccups that fueled a supply shortage and resulting historic gas price spike.

But despite decades of California politicians calling to hold the oil industry accountable, California’s top energy oversight body said it lacks critical data on the state’s oil refining industry, which is controlled by a handful of companies including Chevron, Valero, and PBF Energy.

Quentin Gee, an analyst for the energy commission, described the oversight body as being “completely in the dark” surrounding issues of planned and unplanned maintenance because the oil industry closely guards its operations as trade secrets. “Basically it is more authority” that is needed, Gee said.

“This feels to me like looking through a picket fence and seeing only some of what’s on the other side,” said CEC Commissioner David Hochschild, a Newsom appointee.

Much of California’s high gasoline costs are explained by the state’s high taxes, environmental regulations, and special fuel blends that prevent rampant smog from accumulating in cities. Altogether fees – including federal taxes, which all states pay – tack on roughly $1.20 to the base price of California gasoline.

Last month, the pain at the pump prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to accuse major oil companies of “price gouging.” He announced a special legislative session to pursue a “windfall profits tax” on oil companies. Newsom said the session would be a “date with destiny” starting on Dec. 5. The legislative hearings are not expected to get underway until January when lawmakers return to Sacramento after the holidays.

Newsom’s push to tax oil refiners’ profits gained steam in recent weeks as major oil companies reported soaring profits in their most recent quarter.

“California oil refiners reported truly windfall profits in 2022, profits levels they have never reached in the last 20 years.” said Jamie Court of Consumer Watchdog. “It’s time for the state to set a windfall profits cap on oil refiners so that the Golden State gouge comes to an end.”

For now, the governor and state lawmakers are holding any plans for a profits tax close to their chest. Newsom has said revenue from a tax on oil industry profits would “go right back to the taxpayers,” which could look similar to the $350 gas rebates many Californians received.

Analysts backing the oil industry say a windfall profits tax would only cause oil refineries to reduce their gasoline supply leading to more price shocks for consumers. They say high profits are necessary to back infrastructure investments in an industry that saw profits crash during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In “2020 the oil companies lost hundreds of billions of dollars,” said Michael Mische, a business professor at USC, speaking on Monday at an event organized by Californians Against Higher Taxes. “Today they’re making it back.”

On Tuesday, policymakers’ testy relationship with the oil industry was on display. The commission left empty six seats with names of oil industry executives who declined to attend the hearing. On Monday, Newsom blasted the oil industry’s planned no-show as “pathetic.” Taking their place on Tuesday was the Western States Petroleum Association, a trade group.

“You cannot tax your way out of this problem,” said WSPA President Catherine-Reheis Boyd. “The only result of a windfall profit tax will make the problem worse. You are sending the absolute opposite investment decision . . . to anyone who wants to continue business here.”

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