North Dakota Streamlines Industry Taxes Amid Low Oil Prices

May 5, 2015

The oil and gas industry pays a ton of money in severance taxes to energy producing states like Colorado, Wyoming and especially North Dakota. When oil prices were high, North Dakota took in about $10.5 million a day. But as prices have fallen, so has revenue. In the midst of this, North Dakota lawmakers have passed a bill to stabilize and lower the state's oil and gas tax rate.

Very few people in the state capitol of Bismarck support the state's current tax system.

"It was once explained to me that our tax policy is kinda like being on the Wheel of Fortune," Representative Al Carlson, the House Majority Leader said. "Because sometimes you can hit the big trip to Hawaii and the next spot can be bankruptcy."

In North Dakota the oil and gas tax rate is pegged to the price of oil. When prices are high, companies pay about 11.5 percent on the value of oil produced. When prices are low for an extended period of time, they pay 5 percent. The introduction of House Bill 1476 was designed to get rid of that volatility.

"We thought it would be beneficial to have a stable tax system both for the state of North Dakota and for the industry," Carlson explained.

Here's how it will work: The enormous tax cut that lowers the rate to 5 percent disappears forever toward the end of 2015. On Jan. 1, 2016, the overall rate drops from 11.5 to 10 percent. There's a new trigger too, one that raises the rate back up to 11 percent if the price of oil stays above $90 for three months in a row.

Severance taxes vary wildly from state to state. There are places like Alaska, where oil companies can pay over 20 percent of what they produce to the state. Then there are states like Oklahoma where companies pay about 3 percent. There are also a million different exemptions and tax holidays that mean companies can pay different tax rates on new wells, old wells, wells that don't produce much or wells outside of a developed oilfield. That makes it very hard to get an apples-to-apples comparison of severance taxes.

Barry Rabe, a professor of public and environmental policy at University of Michigan, studies oil and gas taxes and has found that states that were earlier players in oil and gas tend to have the highest rates.

Take Wyoming, where oil was discovered in the 19th century. Companies there pay one of the highest tax rates in the lower 48 — just under 12 percent. That means if oil sells for $100 a barrel, Wyoming collects about $12 per barrel. Compare that to newer energy states like Ohio, which collects only 20 cents per barrel of oil they extract, no matter the price.

Ironically, states we tend to think of as most hostile toward taxation tend to set the highest rates, said Rabe.

Mark Haggerty, a researcher with Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research group in Montana, said there is a reason for this. Wyoming has made a conscious decision to use its natural resources to fund state government and lower the tax burden on its citizens. As such, it needs to tax the industry heavily. Severance taxes make up 40 percent of total tax collections in Wyoming compared to only 2 percent in Colorado, a state with a much more diverse economy that is much less dependent on natural resources.

States like Wyoming and North Dakota are, "very dependent on the industry, they need the industry, but they're also willing to be more aggressive in taxing the industry than their neighbors," Haggerty noted.

The shale boom is starting to change that. Now that hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are unlocking reserves in unexpected places like Ohio and Michigan, there's more pressure to try to compete with other states for oil companies' business. North Dakota Republican Senator Rich Wardner made that argument before the state's House Finance and Taxation Committee while testifying in favor of lowering and stabilizing the tax rate. When the price of oil drops, he said a lower rate will cause companies to "stick around longer and there will be more activity out there."

Many researchers disagree though with Wardner's argument.

"There's not a lot of evidence, empirically, to suggest that drilling investment follows tax rates, especially when we're talking about a few percentage points," the University of Michigan's Rabe said. "And yet that still comes up in the minds of a lot of legislators who are thinking about how to best cultivate a resource."

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.