Transportation Fuel Taxes: Impacts of a Repeal or Moratorium

Transportation Fuel Taxes:
Impacts of a Repeal or Moratorium
May 7, 2008
Robert Pirog
Specialist in Energy Economics
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
John W. Fischer
Specialist in Transportation Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division

Transportation Fuel Taxes:
Impacts of a Repeal or Moratorium
Legislation that would repeal or otherwise provide for a summer-long
moratorium of federal transportation fuel taxes has been introduced in the 110th
Congress. Simultaneously, Senators McCain and Clinton are proposing a summer
fuel tax collection moratorium as part of their Presidential campaigns. Fuel prices
have risen rapidly in 2008 for a variety of reasons. Those seeking to alter federal fuel
tax collection are doing so in the belief that a reduction in fuel taxes would give
Americans a modest level of economic relief from high pump prices. Current market
conditions and the marginal amount of tax relief incorporated in most proposals,
however, raise uncertainty as to whether prices to individuals and businesses would
fall and whether any price decline would be meaningful to consumers in economic
terms. Also of concern is the possible impact of any repeal or moratorium on the
overall federal budget deficit.
A reduction in transportation fuel taxes would result in a decrease in spending
for Highway Trust Fund-supported federal programs, unless Congress designated
alternate sources of funding for these programs. As a result of the structure of the
federal programs, the effects of a fuel tax repeal on federal transportation programs
would not necessarily be immediate, but depending on the length and scope of the
repeal or suspension, they could be substantial.

Increase in Crude Oil and Refined Product Prices.........................1
Proposals to Offset Effects of Higher Crude Oil Prices.....................1th
Selected Legislative Proposals in the 110 Congress..................2
Impacts on Markets and Prices.......................................3
Surface Transportation Program Effects................................5
Federal Surface Transportation Program Revenue Issues...............6

Transportation Fuel Taxes:
Impacts of a Repeal or Moratorium
Legislation that would repeal or otherwise provide for a summer-long
moratorium of federal transportation fuel taxes has been introduced in the 110th
Congress. Simultaneously, Senators McCain and Clinton are proposing a summer
fuel tax collection moratorium as part of their Presidential campaigns. Fuel prices
have risen rapidly in 2008 for a variety of reasons. Those seeking to alter federal fuel
tax collection are doing so in the belief that a reduction in fuel taxes would give
Americans a modest level of economic relief from high pump prices. There is,
however, significant opposition to this proposal by those who believe that a fuel tax
“holiday” would provide minimal relief to individuals, while potentially adding to
the overall federal deficit.
Increase in Crude Oil and Refined Product Prices
Due to the continued tightness in crude oil markets, spot prices of crude oil rose
by almost $20 per barrel between the end of December 2007 and the end of April

2008, from about $91 per barrel to about $112 per barrel. Perhaps more publicized,

the futures price of one grade of crude oil exceeded $115 per barrel in late April. The
average acquisition cost of crude oil to U.S. petroleum refiners (which excludes some
transportation costs) increased by approximately 15% over almost the same period,
from $85 per barrel at the end of December 2007 to $98 per barrel in March 2008.
Because the cost of crude oil to refiners accounts for a substantial portion of the
price of refined petroleum products to users, retail prices of gasoline, diesel fuel, and
heating oil have risen. The average U.S. retail price of gasoline of all grades
increased from about $3.07 per gallon at the end of December 2007 to $3.51 per
gallon by the end of April 2008, an increase of about 14%. The average price of
diesel fuel per gallon increased from about $3.34 in December 2007 to $4.08 in late
April 2008, or 22%. Jet fuel prices rose from $2.68 per gallon in December 2007 to
$3.10 in late April 2008. Home heating oil prices increased by 25% from December
2007, the beginning of the winter heating season, to April 2008, the end of the winter
heating season, from $2.60 per gallon to $3.24 per gallon.
Proposals to Offset Effects of
Higher Crude Oil Prices
The steep increases in the retail prices of refined petroleum products over a six-
month period have prompted some Members of Congress to seek means of
countering the consequences of higher crude oil prices and/or reducing the retail

prices. Among other policy options, interest has focused on a possible moratorium
on the federal excise taxes on transportation fuels, especially gasoline and diesel fuel.
Virtually all transportation fuels are taxed under a complicated structure of
excise tax rates and exemptions that vary by transportation mode and fuel type.
Gasoline used in highway transportation is taxed at a rate of 18.4 cents per gallon.
This is composed of an 18.3-cent-per-gallon Highway Trust Fund rate, the revenues
from which are earmarked for the federal Highway Trust Fund, and a 0.1-cent-per-
gallon rate dedicated to funding the Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST)
Trust Fund. Diesel fuel used in highway transportation is subject to total federal
excise taxes of 24.4 cents per gallon, 24.3 cents of which is earmarked for the
Highway Trust Fund and 0.1 cent of which goes to the LUST fund. Every state also
has excise taxes on fuels used for highway transportation; these differ widely by
state. Some states have employed fuel tax moratoriums in the past, with varying
results. 1
In the current situation, congressional attention has focused on temporary and
extended suspension of highway fuel excise taxes. Higher gasoline costs for
consumers reduce the amount of disposable income available for other purchases,
and may be especially disruptive to consumers during the summer driving season.2
Higher fuel costs for truckers potentially increase hauling charges, transportation
costs, and consumer prices, and may also decrease trucking company profits and/or
drivers’ income. Fuel costs constitute a significant portion of trucking company
operating costs.3
Selected Legislative Proposals in the 110th Congress
S. 2890 (Senator McCain, April 17, 2008) would suspend the fuel taxes for the
summer driving season (May 26, 2008, to September 1, 2008), and requires that the
Highway Trust Fund and LUST accounts be reimbursed by Treasury general funds
for revenues not collected from fuel taxes. S. 2971 (Senator Clinton, May 2, 2008)
would suspend fuel taxes for the same period. It would also reimburse the Highway
Trust Fund and LUST deposits from the Treasury general funds, although it does
provide offsetting new revenues from a windfall profits tax on the oil industry. A
third Senate bill, S. 2896 (Senator Snowe, April 21, 2008) would partially suspend
only the diesel highway fuel excise tax, setting it at 18.3 cents per gallon from
passage until December 31, 2008. This bill would also provide for Highway Trust
Fund and LUST reimbursement from Treasury general funds.

1 Cave, Damien. “States Get In on Calls for a Gas Tax Holiday.” The New York Times. May

6, 2008.

2 The summer driving season, from Memorial Day until Labor Day, is believed to result in
an increase in the demand for gasoline due to holiday and vacation travel as well as
increased driving for personal errands and commercial activity due to longer benign weather
daylight hours.
3 CRS has estimated fuel costs as at least 15% of total operating costs, based upon data from
trucking company annual reports, the American Trucking Associations, Global Insight, and
the Energy Information Administration (U.S. Department of Energy).

Two House bills were introduced in the first session of the 110th Congress that
take a different approach to providing fuel tax relief. H.R. 1569 (Representative
McHugh, March 19, 2007) suspends highway fuel taxes whenever the per-gallon
price of gasoline exceeds $2.75. H.R. 2448 (Representative Kuhl, May 23, 2007)
reduces the highway gasoline excise tax by 10 cents per gallon whenever the price
of gasoline exceeds $3.00 per gallon. H.R. 1569 would provide for Highway Trust
Fund and LUST reimbursement; H.R. 2448 would not.
Impacts on Markets and Prices
As indicated, the measures described are motivated by the steep and rapid
increases in the retail prices of refined petroleum products, and are intended to
reverse those increases, at least to some extent, for a limited period of time. Under
“normal” market conditions and assuming a reasonable degree of competition in oil
and petroleum product markets, the market response to a cut in the excise taxes
would be a tendency to reduce user prices by an amount less than or equal to the tax
Economic theory suggests that the key factor in determining the extent of the
pass-through to consumers of the reduced tax is the degree of price responsiveness4
of the supply of petroleum products. If the quantity supplied is extremely responsive
to even tiny price changes, the entire tax cut would be passed on to consumers.5 If,
as is more likely in the real world, there is a less sensitive relationship between prices
and the supply of refined petroleum products, less of the tax cut would be passed on
to consumers. In the case of no sensitivity of petroleum product supply to changes
in price, none of the tax cut is likely to be passed on to consumers. In the latter two6
cases, the taxed entities — refiners, importers, and terminal operators — would view
the tax cut as a decrease in the cost of doing business, take advantage of the quantity-
constrained nature of supply, and pass forward some, or none, of the tax cut in the
form of lower prices.
Current market conditions, however, may limit, or even prevent, an observed
reduction in prices to end-users. Rising crude oil prices have resulted from a
continued growth in world demand that has put pressure on available world supplies,
resulting in diminished world excess oil production capacity and generally tight
inventories. These conditions have persisted in the oil market since 2003. In addition,
some analysts have identified other factors, including speculation on oil futures
markets, inflation hedging, political disruption, and mismanagement by national oil
companies, as contributing to high oil prices. Rising crude oil prices may continue
to push up the price of gasoline, offsetting any reduction in the fuel taxes.

4 Economists measure the responsiveness of the supply by estimating the value of the
“supply elasticity.”
5 Economists identify this situation as an infinite elasticity of supply.
6 Depending on the particular circumstances, federal transportation fuel excise taxes are
levied on and remitted by the refiner, terminal operator, or importer.

With respect to refined petroleum products, especially gasoline and diesel fuel,
demand in the United States has exceeded domestic refining capacity, even though
the refining industry has run at high capacity utilization rates. As a result, about 1
million barrels per day of finished gasoline and gasoline blending stocks are imported
to meet U.S. demand.7 The combination of limited capacity and high capacity
utilization rates greatly limits the ability of the refining industry to increase the
availability of refined petroleum products. Under these conditions, most experts
would likely conclude that it is probable that little, if any, of a tax cut due to a
temporary suspension of the fuel excise taxes would be passed forward to final
Notwithstanding generally high profits in the oil industry, profit margins in the
the refining sector have been much lower. Four (Shell, BP, Chevron, and Marathon)
of the six (ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips) largest integrated oil companies
experienced declining income growth in downstream operations in 2007.8 Reduced
profits in the refining sector might provide a further incentive for the firms not to
pass tax cuts on to consumers, especially in light of the temporary nature of the tax
Moreover, because 18.4 cents is small in relation to current end user prices for
transportation fuels, about 5%, most experts would likely conclude that even a full
pass-through of a suspension or repeal would have little effect on end user prices.
In an environment of rapidly increasing prices, even a full pass-through might only
offset the price increases emanating from market pressures. In that case, consumers
might continue to see increasing prices at the pump, even though the tax cut was
made fully available to them. If lesser amounts than the full tax cut were passed on
to consumers, market-generated price increases might make the effect of the tax cut
Proposals to suspend the full amount of only the gasoline, or diesel, fuel tax
could be expected to have more complicated market effects. Although temporary,
singling out one fuel for tax relief could change the relative price structure among
refined products and introduce incentives to change the proportions of products
derived from each barrel of crude oil, all of which would be affected by the
seasonality of demand. Also, it is possible that refiners would apply some of a
particular product tax cut to the prices of one or more other refined products. Thus,
it is uncertain not only that measures that give excise tax relief will result in
reductions in prices to end users, but that any reductions will apply to the product
given tax relief.
If the tax cut is passed on to users of gasoline, and prices are reduced, it is likely
that consumption will increase. An increased consumption of gasoline will lead to
an increased demand for oil that will likely increase its price and lead to further
increases in the price of gasoline. In addition, increased demand for gasoline in the
United States is likely to be met by an increase in imported gasoline, increasing U.S.

7 Energy Information Administration, Weekly Imports and Exports, available at
[ h t t p : / / www.ei] .
8 Downstream operations include refining, distribution, and marketing.

dependence on foreign supplies. Increased consumption of gasoline will also increase
carbon emissions.
Also, although it may not be likely, some states experiencing budget pressure
could substitute increased state fuel taxes for the reduced federal tax. In that case,
if the refiners did not pass through the full tax cut to consumers, and if a state raised
its tax by an amount equal to the proposed reduction in the federal tax, the net tax
effect on consumers might increase. This response could result from a decrease in
funding from the Highway Trust Fund. A few states have provisions that
automatically increase their taxes to some extent when federal taxes fall below a
certain level.
Surface Transportation Program Effects
Federal funding for surface transportation is closely linked to the revenue stream
provided by the Highway Trust Fund. In actuality, the trust fund consists of two
separate accounts — highways and mass transit. In common usage, the term Highway
Trust Fund normally refers to the highway account. As mentioned earlier, the primary
revenue sources for these accounts are the 18.4-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline and
a 24.4-cent-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel. Although there are other sources of revenue
for the trust fund, these fuel taxes provide about 90% of the income to the funds. Of
these amounts, the transit account receives 2.86 cents per gallon, and 0.1 cent per
gallon is reserved for an unrelated leaking underground storage tank (LUST) fund.
Over the almost 50-year life of the trust fund, there have been several increases in the9
level of taxation. The last increase in the fuel tax occurred in 1993.
Growth in the trust fund revenue stream over the last five decades has remained
reliable largely because of continued growth in auto and truck registrations, which,
combined with increased auto and truck use, has resulted in a relatively constant
annual increase in national fuel consumption. Growth in fuel consumption has also
been enabled by changes in the makeup of the national vehicular fleet. This was
especially the case in the 1990s, when consumer demand for SUVs and light trucks
led to an even higher level of growth in fuel usage.
Although driving has not yet decreased significantly as a result of $3.50-plus-
per-gallon fuel costs, it is believed that these price levels are affecting vehicle10
purchase decisions and other use-related decisions. For example, fuel-efficient
vehicles such as hybrids are selling well, and less fuel-efficient vehicles are selling
at a much reduced rate. This situation will, if it continues, potentially reduce long-
term growth in fuel tax revenue. Other fuel cost-related trends may develop over
time. For example, a significant shift to alcohol-based fuels would put pressure on
the overall federal budget because of federal subsidies afforded these fuels.

9 A significant portion of the 1993 increase was initially deposited in the Treasury general
funds for deficit reduction purposes. These funds were redirected to the Highway Trust
Fund beginning in FY1998.
10 Vlasic, Bill. “As Gas Costs Soar, Buyers Are Flocking to Small Cars.” The New York
Times. May 2, 2008.

Federal Surface Transportation Program Revenue Issues
Federal surface transportation programs are currently authorized by the Safe,
Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act — A Legacy for Users
(SAFETEA-LU or SAFETEA) (P.L. 109-59). This act reauthorized federal surface
transportation programs through the end of FY2009. The act provided $286.4 billion
for a six-year authorization period (in actuality, the act provided $244.1 billion for
the five years remaining in the authorization at the time of passage).
Of immediate concern to the transportation community is the fact that the
federal-aid highway program is currently spending more on highways on an annual
basis than the Highway Trust Fund is receiving annually in new revenues. Although
this trend began prior to passage of SAFETEA, the funding levels provided by the
act can only be met by spending down the cash balances in the highway and transit
accounts of the trust fund. The authors of SAFETEA believed that the existing cash
balances in the trust fund, when combined with new revenues, were sufficient to
carry the program through the FY2009 authorization period. There is now widespread
agreement in the transportation community that this was an optimistic prediction.
Both the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Congressional Budget
Office (CBO) believe that the cash balances in the highway account will be negative
prior to the end of FY2009.11 A fuel tax repeal or moratorium without a concomitant
increase in revenues from some other source, such as the Treasury general fund,
could hasten and otherwise exacerbate this situation.
At the time of this writing, no CBO, OMB, or Joint Tax Committee estimate of
the amount of revenue that would be forgone by a gas tax holiday is available. A
rough estimate of how much a tax holiday could cost the trust fund can be derived
as follows. The Bush Administration budget proposal for FY2009 estimates that the
highway account of the trust fund will collect revenues of $34.19 billion in FY2008.12
The transit account will collect an estimated $5.01 billion for the same period. Total
estimated revenue collection for the fund for FY2008 would, therefore, be $39.2
billion. As mentioned earlier, approximately 90% of trust fund revenues derive from
fuel taxes. Therefore, approximately $35.28 billion of FY2008 revenues would be
from fuel taxes. If annual fuel sales are evenly divided over 12 months, each month
that the fuel tax might be suspended would result in $2.94 billion in lost revenue. A
three-month suspension, similar to those proposed by S. 2890 and S. 2971, equates
to $8.8 billion under these assumptions. Since the suspension period proposed in this
legislation represents the peak summer driving period, it is possible that the amount
forgone could be slightly higher.

11 There is widespread concurrence within the transportation finance community that the
trust funds are in financial difficulty and that the highway account balances will be negative
before the end of FY2009. The primary item of continuing debate is the point during the
fiscal year at which this might occur. For a discussion of the overall financing issue, see
National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission, Interim Report, The
Path Forward: Funding and Financing Our Surface Transportation System. Washington.
February 2008. p. 11.
12 Office of Management and Budget. Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2009,
Appendix. Washington. 2008. p. 888 and p. 917.

Because of the manner in which federal transportation programs operate, the
effects of these reductions would not become apparent in highway project spending
immediately. Federal transportation programs are reimbursable programs, meaning
that actual outlays only occur after work has been completed at the state or local
level. The FY2009 budget predicts that the Highway Trust Fund would have an end-
of-year FY2008 balance of $3 billion. If alternative funding were not provided to
make up for the fuel tax holiday lost revenues, it is likely, therefore, that the Highway
Trust Fund will have a negative balance at some point prior to the end of FY2008.
This would not be the case for the transit account which is operating with a larger
unexpended balance. At some point, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)
would have to defer outlays for highway project reimbursement, pending the accrual
of revenues to the highway account, which would be minimal until the reinstatement
of the fuel taxes. It is also likely that FHWA would deem it prudent to reduce or
otherwise delay the award of new obligation authority to the states (this is the
authority that allows states to enter into contracts for new projects).
The programs authorized by SAFETEA are due for reauthorization at the end
of FY2009. Any disruption in surface transportation funding could hasten the
reauthorization debate, which was expected to take place in the first session of the
111th Congress. Reauthorization is expected to include a significant discussion about
the size of the overall federal commitment to surface transportation funding and the
adequacy of existing revenues. A suspension of the fuel taxes, assuming that they
would be reinstated at the end of the holiday period, could raise problematic
questions about the supposed sanctity of the five-decade-old link between fuel taxes
and surface transportation funding. This would especially be the case if surface
transportation programs were to become ever more dependent on Treasury general