Fossil Fuel Companies Took Billions in U.S. Coronavirus Relief Funds but Still Cut Nearly 60,000 Jobs

A new analysis shows how oil and mining businesses used tax changes in the CARES Act to improve cash flow and reward shareholders rather than maintain employment.

An aerial view shows Marathon Petroleum Corp's Los Angeles Refinery, the state's largest producer of gasoline, on April 22, 2020 in Carson, California. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images
An aerial view shows Marathon Petroleum Corp's Los Angeles Refinery, the state's largest producer of gasoline, on April 22, 2020 in Carson, California. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images

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When Congress looked to prop up a tanking economy and stanch its hemorrhaging of employment as the pandemic spread last year, the oil industry was among those that sought relief. Now, a new analysis shows that dozens of fossil fuel companies received billions of dollars in tax benefits in the coronavirus relief package, but slashed tens of thousands of jobs anyway.

While Congress ended up sending billions in direct loans to small and large businesses, a significant portion of CARES Act benefits came in the form of changes to the tax code. At least 77 fossil fuel companies took advantage of those to claim a total of $8.2 billion in benefits last year, even as they cut nearly 60,000 jobs, according to an analysis published Friday by BailoutWatch, a nonprofit supported by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Chris Kuveke, a BailoutWatch analyst, said the data shows that the aid to the industry failed to deliver the benefits that Congress had intended.

“These companies did not use that money they received through the CARES Act to maintain payroll,” he said.


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As oil prices collapsed last year, some energy companies began lobbying Congress and the federal government for various forms of relief. Occidental Petroleum, for example, enlisted its employees to send letters to members of Congress to ask that they “provide liquidity” to the energy industry, according to Bloomberg News.

Among the various forms of stimulus included in the final relief package were changes to the tax code that proved beneficial to the oil industry.

For example, companies for years were allowed to “carry back” their losses in one year to offset profits from previous years to get a retroactive tax refund. That allowance helped companies with volatile earnings, but it was eliminated by the 2017 tax cuts signed into law by President Donald Trump. The change was one of the few provisions of the tax overhaul that modestly increased the tax burden for corporations, even as the bill overall drastically reduced corporate taxes, said Thornton Matheson, a senior fellow at Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

The CARES Act eliminated that change, and even expanded on the original provision, allowing companies to carry any losses incurred from 2018-2020 back five years, instead of the two years allowed before the 2017 tax bill. Matheson said the oil and gas industry was among a few likely to benefit most from that part of the CARES Act, because its earnings can swing wildly with commodity prices.

Thus the change allowed companies to stretch losses from 2018 back to 2013, when oil prices were above $100 a barrel and profits for some of them were sky high (prices fell sharply in late 2014, and have not fully recovered).

Marathon Petroleum, a major refiner, benefited the most, the analysis found, claiming $2.1 billion in tax benefits, according to the BailoutWatch analysis. The company cut nearly 2,000 jobs last year, not counting those in its retail business.

Marathon disputed the figure, saying that less than 30 percent of its $2.1 billion tax benefit was due to the CARES Act provisions. However, its annual securities filing said that based on the carryback “as provided by the CARES Act, we recorded an income tax receivable of $2.1 billion” to reflect the company’s estimate of the refund it expected to receive in its 2020 tax return.

Marathon spokesman Jamal T. Kheiry said some of the layoffs were associated with the idling of refineries, and added that the company was generous with employees who lost their jobs. “To help affected employees transition, we provided severance, bonus payments, extended healthcare benefits at employee rates, job placement assistance, counseling and other provisions,” he said.

NOV, a drilling company, cut nearly 8,000 workers, more than 20 percent of its employees, despite receiving a $591 million tax benefit. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Occidental collected $195 million and cut 2,600 jobs.

Eric P. Moses, a spokesman for Occidental, said the job cuts were associated with its 2019 acquisition of Anadarko Petroleum “and completed prior to the COVID pandemic and Congress’ passage of the CARES Act.”

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In March 2020, Occidental announced it would cut some employee salaries, with the highest reductions going to top executives, according to Reuters. Two months later, Reuters reported the company was asking employees to take voluntary buyouts.

In total, BailoutWatch estimated in November that fossil fuel companies had received $10.4 to $15.2 billion in direct benefits from various CARES Act programs, and that total reflected only the $5.5 billion in tax benefits that were reported at that point.

The oil and gas industry faced an historic fiscal crisis last year, as oil prices collapsed and global travel ground to a halt. In response, the U.S. oil and gas sector cut more than 100,000 jobs as of November last year, a 16 percent decline, according to BW Research Partnership.

Unlike the Paycheck Protection Program, companies that claimed the tax benefits were not required to keep employees on their payroll. Matheson, at the Urban-Brookings Center, said the purpose of the tax changes was not to maintain jobs, but to help companies improve their cash flow as revenues tanked.

She said the United States, compared to other developed nations, devoted more of its pandemic relief to this type of corporate aid than it did to keeping people employed. 

“You can question both the size of those measures and how effective they were,” she said. “Are these tax breaks something that we want to give to large corporations, or do we want to focus them on small businesses?”

Kuveke said that if companies had been focused on maintaining jobs, they could have chosen to cut costs elsewhere. Marathon, for example, increased its dividend in January 2020, and maintained it at that level as the pandemic spread, rewarding shareholders instead of maintaining employment.

Stephen Comstock, vice president of corporate policy at the American Petroleum Institute, said that “the CARES Act, which was passed with strong bipartisan support, provided critical relief to businesses across the economy experiencing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic.” 

For example, companies in other industries also benefited from the carry-back provision. “It’s unfortunate that some have chosen to exploit this crisis and distort the facts in order to advance a partisan agenda,” he said. 

The BailoutWatch analysis comes as the oil and gas industry is pushing back against the Biden administration’s efforts to transition the nation’s energy system away from fossil fuels. While the industry and its allies in Congress have warned that Biden’s policies will cost jobs, the number of people employed in the oil and gas extraction sector—which covers drilling but not pipelines, refining or other parts of the industry—had actually fallen sharply from a high in 2014, even as oil and gas production increased, according to federal data.

On Wednesday, Biden announced that he would seek to eliminate subsidies and tax benefits for the oil and gas sector, which estimates have put at tens of billions of dollars per year, as part of his infrastructure proposals.

The American Petroleum Institute responded in a statement that the industry “receives no special tax treatment.”

But Kuveke said his analysis showed that the claim is disingenuous. While the carry-back changes he analyzed were not specific to the oil industry, he said, they show that tax provisions can favor particular industries even if they aren’t explicitly targeted.

“They uniquely benefit oil and gas,” he said.