Day one of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s marathon markup of President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion Build Back Better spending plan sparked a revealing debate between the parties on whether a proposed new federal levy is a tax or a fee.
At the center of the debate is the Biden administration’s proposal to impose a new levy on methane gas emissions during energy production. When Ranking Minority Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) offered an amendment to strike the levy, it quickly became clear that the only thing the two sides agreed on was that methane stinks.
After McMorris Rodgers defended her amendment as necessary because the proposed “natural gas tax” would “make it more expensive to heat homes, to cook, eat, to manufacture thousands of products” a succession of GOP colleagues on the panel expanded upon her theme.
“This partisan tax is damaging, it’s dangerous, and it’s unnecessary for a number of reasons,” Rep. John Joyce (R-Pa.) declared. “This tax is dangerous to the thousands of American families who rely upon the energy jobs that this industry provides. This industry could lose up to 90,000 jobs nationwide” if the proposal is enacted.
Joyce also argued that the new tax would cause inflation, causing consumer prices to spiral higher across the economy, but especially for food and energy, with the most damage being sustained by lower- and middle-income families.
At that point, Joyce was engaged in a colloquy by Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.), who said, “I’d just like to point out that when we talk about a tax, and it is a tax, as I pointed out, but in regard to methane, 29 percent, which is the highest percentage of methane emissions, comes from cattle.
“I think we’ve had a discussion about the increased costs for dairy cattle, a massive increase for beef cattle, a massive increase for pigs. Another 10 percent comes from rice cultivation, other agricultural services seven percent, so we’re talking about almost half of all the methane is coming from food sources,” Palmer added.
The Alabama Republican closed by telling Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) that “you can call it whatever you want to but this is a tax, or a fee, but it is going to impact the cost of food for millions and millions of people, not only in the United States but worldwide.”
DeGette was having none of it.
“Mr. Chairman, I’ve been sitting here very patiently listening to my friends across the aisle calling it a ‘tax.’ This provision is not a tax. I’m sure they have tested this. I’m sure they think that if they keep calling it a tax, it will confuse the American public.
“But the problem is, it’s a fee on natural gas waste and here’s how it works: Companies are now releasing methane into the atmosphere. It is a worse pollutant than carbon dioxide,” DeGette alleged.
“It causes health risks, it causes all kinds of problems, but equally bad is it causes a loss of millions and millions of dollars that the energy companies could capture if they captured the methane gas and they have the technology to do it. So, if they meet reasonable standards of waste prevention, then they won’t pay any fee at all.”
DeGette said “the smart players” in the energy industry “know how to prevent waste and they want to capitalize on it to make money, so they won’t be paying a fee on the natural gas at all. Customers won’t be paying a fee on the natural gas delivered to them. The only fee will be paid on what doesn’t make it to the consumer.”
When the vote was taken, 32 Democrats voted against the McMorris Rodgers amendment to delete the levy from the bill, while 26 Republicans voted in favor of killing the natural gas tax.
Palmer’s point that nearly half of all methane emissions are related to farm animals and food production was key to the Republicans’ claim that passage of the levy would cost consumers and farmers more than $400 billion annually.
Assuming the methane levy was applied to farms, according to McMorris Rodgers, it would mean a $6,504 charge per dairy cow per year, $2,607 per beef cattle per year, and $503 per pig.
“Can you imagine what that will do to the cost of milk,” McMorris Rodgers asked.
When Democrats countered that the text of the proposed levy says nothing about being assessed against farm stock, Republicans offered an amendment making such an exemption part of the text. Democrats rejected the amendment on a 31-27 tally, thus leaving open the possibility that cows and pigs could soon be taxed for their methane emissions.