Heller’s oil dilemma

Poor Dean Heller. The guy just can’t catch a break.

For years, Democrats have slammed Heller for allegedly being a gigantic whore for Big Oil, voting repeatedly against closing tax loopholes enjoyed by some of the most profitable companies on the planet.

He voted in May against considering the Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act. He voted in March 2011 to temporarily repeal oil and gas production tax breaks. He voted (as a congressman, before he was appointed to the Senate) in September 2008 against raising some oil and gas company taxes to provide energy and tuition tax credits.

He voted in February 2008 against eliminating a manufacturing tax deduction for large oil and gas companies aimed at providing wind, solar, and geothermal energy tax credits.

He voted in December 2007 against eliminating or reducing subsidies and tax breaks for oil companies as part of a bill to raise fuel-economy standards. Also in 2007, he voted repeatedly against reducing oil company tax benefits to encourage residential energy efficiency, to generate money for a reserve fund for renewable energy and to funnel money to develop alternative energy sources.

Oh, and just last week, Heller voted against a Democratic bill — S.2204, the Repeal Big Oil Subsidies Act — that would have eliminated $2.3 billion in tax breaks in order to provide tax cuts for green energy and reduce the deficit.

But this was also the week that Heller offered a concession: He introduced an amendment to the Repeal Big Oil Subsidies Act, which would also eliminate the $2.3 billion in tax breaks, but use the money to offset a 1 cent per gallon cut in the federal gasoline tax.

So what do Democrats do?

Praise Heller for finally turning against Big Oil?

Thank him for embracing the very tax cuts that Democrats wanted, albeit spending the money a little differently?

Oh, no: They slam him for being a flip-flopper!

Eric Koch, spokesman for Heller challenger Rep. Shelley Berkley, accused Heller of “a back flip that would make an Olympic gymnast proud.” Others griped about hypocrisy, given that Heller’s change of heart comes as gas prices are rising and he’s just seven months away from an election.

Heller’s people deny it: They say Heller’s been consistent all along, voting against eliminating tax breaks not because he’s doing the bidding of Big Oil, but because he objected to how the money thus raised was going to be spent.

“It’s the philosophical difference of, where does it [money] go? That is a philosophical difference,” said Stewart Bybee, Heller’s spokesman.

In this case, the money would go toward tax relief at the pump, albeit just a penny per gallon. “The ultimate goal is to bring down gas prices,” Bybee said. “Shouldn’t there be some kind of relief for consumers?”

Sure there should. But my savings, assuming my 17-gallon tank was on empty, is just 17 cents per fill-up. If I filled up every week for a year, my Heller rebate — my Hell-bate — if you will, would total just $8.84.

And that’s only if oil companies don’t raise prices to make up for the lost revenue, as conservatives often argue they will.

But the real problem with the Democrats’ criticism of Heller’s alleged flip-flop is that it’s not true: In addition to the 1-cent gas tax relief, the bill is full of things Big Oil will love, such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off the coasts, hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) and finishing the Keystone XL pipeline. Bybee explained Heller has long been in favor of increasing domestic oil supply. “You need to increase supply to bring down prices,” he says.

Fracking our way to more oil? Heller hasn’t flip-flopped on some of the issues that Big Oil loves most of all.


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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