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April 07, 2009

Your Government At Work: US Paying $8 Billion Per Year to Paper Manufacturers to Use Petroleum They Don't Use and Wouldn't Use at All if Not for the Huge Tax Credit

This is from the Nation, but worth reading. Not only is this specific program an absurd boondoggle, but it illustrates the unintended consequences of trying to dictate people's economic decisions generally.

Thanks to an obscure tax provision, the United States government stands to pay out as much as $8 billion this year to the ten largest paper companies. And get this: even though the money comes from a transportation bill whose manifest intent was to reduce dependence on fossil fuel, paper mills are adding diesel fuel to a process that requires none in order to qualify for the tax credit. In other words, we are paying the industry--handsomely--to use more fossil fuel. "Which is," as a Goldman Sachs report archly noted, the "opposite of what lawmakers likely had in mind when the tax credit was established."

The massive tax subsidy has barely been reported in the press, but it's caused a stir in the paper industry, which is struggling to stay profitable in the teeth of the recession. "Everybody's talking about it," paper industry analyst Brian McClay told me. "In the US and elsewhere in the world--in Canada and Brazil and Chile and Europe."

On March 24 International Paper (IP) announced it had received its first check from the IRS for a one-month period this past fall. The total? A whopping $71.6 million. "It's probably close to a billion a year of cash," McClay said. "If you look at the economics of this business, to make that kind of money today you'd have to be on another planet." IP's stock rose 12 per-
cent on the news.

The origins of the credit are innocent enough. In 2005 Congress passed, and George W. Bush signed, the $244 billion transportation bill. It included a variety of tax credits for alternative fuels such as ethanol and biomass. But it also included a fifty-cent-a-gallon credit for the use of fuel mixtures that combined "alternative fuel" with a "taxable fuel" such as diesel or gasoline.

Here's the thing: You don't need much outside fuel to produce paper. The process of pulping up wood produces a burnable liquid called "black liquor," which has traditionally then used by the paper company to burn for its energy. In other words, just pulping the paper produces, as a bonus byproduct, enough "black liquor" to fuel the rest of the process. Or rather 73% if the process -- 27% you have to ship in.

By adding diesel fuel to the black liquor, paper companies produce a mixture that qualifies for the mixed-fuel tax credit, allowing them to burn "black liquor into gold," as a JPMorgan report put it. It's unclear who first came up with the idea--Wrobleski told me it was "outside consultants"--but at some point last fall IP and Verso, another paper company, formerly a part of IP, began adding diesel to its black liquor and applied to the IRS for the credit. (Verso nabbed $29.7 million at just one of its mills in the final quarter of 2008 for its use of mixed fuel.)

Despite the obvious contrivance of the procedure, Wrobleski is unapologetic: "The credit is supposed to encourage the use of green fuel." Sure, I said, but isn't it a bit weird you're now adding diesel fuel to the process in order to take advantage of it? "It is what it is," she said.

Others are less charitable. "You use the toilet every day," said one hedge fund analyst who's been closely following the issue. "Imagine if you could start pouring a little gasoline into the bowl and get fifty cents a gallon every time you flushed."

Great idea. Count me in.

Bonus: The fed will soon be paying more to produce excess paper than the paper companies actually receive in sales:

In fact, the money to be gained from exploiting the tax credit so dwarfs the money to be made in making paper--IP lost $452 million in the fourth quarter of 2008 alone--that the ultimate result of the credit will likely be to push paper prices down as mills churn at full capacity in order to grab as much money from the IRS as it can.

Thanks to JCP.


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posted by Ace at 03:04 PM

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