Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tax battle at Exxon's Shute Creek facilities

House Revenue Committee clarifies valuation of ExxonMobil's sour gas

The House Revenue Committee Wednesday narrowly approved a bill to clarify the valuation of natural gas produced at ExxonMobil’s LaBarge-Shute Creek operation.

The history of tax disputes with ExxonMobil is long. Back in the late 1980s, Exxon declined to pay taxes on its gas production at Shute Creek, declaring that the gas was worthless – even as the company continued to produce and sell the gas. Exxon held that after it deducted all its expenses, including a large deduction for return on investment, there was no value left to the gas.

Exxon’s action triggered a legislative overhaul of the state’s mineral taxation statutes during the early 1990s.

Taxation of processed natural gas — the “sour” gas produced in western Wyoming that requires processing to remove toxic compounds — continued to be an issue throughout the decade and well into the current century. The 2008 Legislature at long last enacted a bill that appears to have addressed most of the problems.

The measure considered Wednesday, HB 78 Natural gas-taxation, is sponsored by Rep. Tom Lubnau II (R-H31, Gillette — pictured above) and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of legislators including the Revenue Committee chairman, Rep. Rodney “Pete” Anderson (R-H10, Pine Bluffs), Rep. Jim Roscoe (D-H22, Wilson) and Sen. John Schiffer (R-S22, Kaycee).

The measure addresses another situation peculiar to the ExxonMobil LaBarge-Shute Creek operation: whether a facility located between the wellfield and the Shute Creek plant is a dehydrator or a processing facility. The difference is more than semantic, as it determines the “point of valuation” for the gas and therefore how much ExxonMobil owes in taxes.

In late 2009, the Wyoming Supreme Court held that Wyoming’s tax statutes on this point were ambiguous and that ambiguity must be resolved in favor of the taxpayer, ExxonMobil. HB 78 seeks to remove the ambiguity by adding definitions, thereby restoring the state’s position on the point of valuation.

The change will increase state severance and advalorem tax revenues on ExxonMobil's extraction by about $1.1 million in 2011 and an estimated $2.2 million in 2012 and 2013, according to the fiscal note attached to the bill.

Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg led off Wednesday morning’s testimony in concert with a lawyer for Sublette County, followed by a lawyer for ExxonMobil. It was a quick education (of sorts, since the third lawyer did not agree with the first two) for several of the committee members who were not involved in the years of legislative work leading up to the 2008 processed gas valuation bill.

Committee members voting for HB 78 were Reps. Amy Edmonds (R-H12, Cheyenne), Ken Esquibel (D-H41, Cheyenne), Patrick Goggles (D-H33, Ethete), Mike Madden (R-H40, Buffalo) and Owen Petersen (R-H19, Mountain View).

Those voting against it included one of the co-sponsors, Chairman Rodney “Pete” Anderson (R-H10, Pine Bluffs) and Reps. David Miller (R-H55, Riverton), Mark Semlek (R-H1, Moorcroft) and Sue Wallis (R-H52, Recluse).

The ESPC supports the bill and has long advocated that the state hire an expert to help with the valuation of the LaBarge-Shute Creek operation, which undeniably is unique, and to boost its investment in the technical and legal teams needed to counteract ExxonMobil’s aggressively litigious approach to tax issues.