The federal government’s bureaucratic and sometimes Byzantine procedures for enacting new laws can achieve the proper results. It may not be pretty or swift, but it does work.
Case in point. In the closing days of July, immediately before an existing deadline, both houses of Congress passed and President Obama signed another stopgap highway bill (H.R. 3236) that extended funding for much need highway and transportation projects through October 29th.
Included in H.R. 3236 was an obscure revenue provision equalizing excise tax rates for liquefied petroleum gas, liquefied natural gas (“LNG”), and compressed natural gas—the so-called “LNG fix.”
The LNG fix provision, buried among a host of other disparate add-ons, was the culmination of years of effort by the natural gas vehicle industry to eliminate the unfair disadvantage of taxing LNG used as a vehicle fuel. This anomaly placed a significant financial burden on high horsepower vehicle operators (especially long-haul truckers) switching from diesel to LNG.
During the last five years, driven by tighter emission standards and the enormous volumes and lower prices for natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing, both compressed natural gas (“CNG”) and LNG have made tremendous strides in penetrating the high horsepower engine fuels market. Because LNG burns cleaner, is lower in cost compared to petroleum alternatives, and now reliably produced domestically, it has become an attractive fuel for heavy-duty tucks, rail locomotives, and maritime vessels.
Traditionally, the federal excise tax on liquid fuels is assessed on a “cents per gallon” basis. The federal excise tax for both LNG and diesel is 24.3 cents per gallon. The federal excise tax on CNG is 18.3 cents per energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline.
Unfortunately, the simplicity of a straight “cents per gallon” tax methodology creates a problem when the energy content of the alternative fuel is significantly different. The fuel containing less energy per gallon is disadvantaged because a greater volume must be used to get the same amount of energy output.
Specifically, LNG has an energy content of about 74,700 Btu per gallon while diesel’s is about 128,700 Btu per gallon. In order to get the same energy output, you use more gallons of LNG in comparison to diesel, hence you pay more in federal excise taxes. For LNG, it means effectively paying what amounts to 41.3 cents per gallon of LNG or nearly 70% more than diesel.
Similarly, propane produces only 72% of the energy output of gasoline, but is taxed at the same 18.3 cents per gallon rate.
The new “LNG fix” tax rate will become effective on January 1, 2016. By taxing the fuels based on an energy equivalent rather than a pure volumetric basis, tax parity is achieved. This then allows both LNG and diesel to be taxed at the same 24.3 cents per gallon, but it’s a diesel gallon equivalent (“DGE”). In other words, the cents per a gallon having the energy equivalent of a gallon of diesel.
The cost difference is not inconsequential. For an LNG fueled truck travelling 100,000 miles each year using 20,000 DGE, the annual fuel tax under the existing code is $8,262. Under the new energy equivalent tax code, the operator will pay $4,860 annually or $3,402 less per year.
As our country takes steps to reduce air emissions from road vehicles, locomotives, and marine vessels and realize the economic advantages of our lower cost, reliable, domestically produced fuels, building tax parity among fuel alternatives is the right thing to do. This change in the tax code doesn’t ensure that LNG will replace petroleum based liquid fuel, it simply levels the playing field.
It also proves that despite what may be a convoluted legislative process, persistence and reason can sometimes overcome Washington’s political partisanship and gridlock to deliver beneficial results for all of us. We will all benefit from the “LNG fix” for years to come.