December 26, 2017 / 6:03 PM / 5 months ago

U.S. tax overhaul likely to spur spending by refiners, pipeline companies

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. refiners and pipeline companies are likely to embark on a capital spending spree in the next year, fueled by a provision in the recently-passed U.S. tax bill that rewards investment in new projects, said energy industry lobbyists and analysts.

On Wednesday, Congress gave final approval to the biggest overhaul of the U.S. tax code in 30 years, the first major legislative victory for President Donald Trump since he took office.

The bill contains a bonus depreciation provision that allows all companies to immediately write off the full costs of capital improvements, instead of depreciating the new asset over time.

The immediate expensing of capital costs will make less financially-attractive projects more viable and free up capital for stock buybacks and increased dividends. The benefit begins to phase out in 2023, which means companies could look to advance projects to take advantage.

“Every major refining company has a list of projects they want to get approved that are ranked by profitability and risk,” said Charles Kemp, vice president of Houston-based energy consultancy Baker & O’Brien Inc.

The bill, he said, will motivate companies to look further down those lists, “and noticeably increase capital budgets.”

The U.S. energy industry has emerged as one of the winners of the historic tax package passed this week. The S&P Oil and Gas Refining Marketing Index is up 27 percent this year, and hit a record this week on optimism over the bill’s passage.

In addition to lower corporate rates, the net effect of the immediate write-off provision will boost the present value of capital investments by roughly 4 to 10 percent, Kemp said. That essentially makes projects more profitable, more quickly.

Moving up projects could be advantageous for refiners and pipeline operators such as Valero and Energy Transfer Partners, as they spend billions yearly to expand plants and build pipelines to move increasing volumes of petroleum.

All refining and pipeline companies contacted by Reuters declined to comment on the implications of the tax package, though some expressed support for the reform in general.

Refiners have already started evaluating capital projects to determine whether marginal ones have become profitable and whether any can be advanced into the five-year window, said two refining lobbyists based in Washington D.C., who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak for their respective companies.

“The U.S. energy industry has spent billions in the past few years, but there’s still a lot of room for growth,” said one lobbyist.

“We have a lot of north and south pipelines, but not a lot east and west. And there’s a lot of demand for exports, so we will see a real uptick in capital investment to meet that demand.”

U.S. exports of crude oil and refined products have increased by 15 percent so far in 2017 when compared with 2016, and companies are looking to add to terminals on the Gulf Coast as U.S. crude oil production nears an all-time record of 10 million barrels a day.

Numerous large investments in export of liquefied natural gas are also in the works, and cheap natural gas prices have spurred $85 billion in U.S. petrochemical investments since 2010, according to multiple studies.

Exxon Mobil Corp, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, had already planned to invest $20 billion through 2022 to expand its chemical and oil refining plants on the Gulf Coast.

Exxon declined to comment on the tax changes. Chevron Corp, which operates several large U.S. refineries, said it “supports comprehensive tax reform and tax policy that enhances both domestic investment in all forms of energy.”

Engineering and building trades in refining and petrochemical states like Texas and Louisiana also emerged as big winners, analysts said. Fresh investment would boost jobs and wages, but may also place increased pressure on a Gulf Coast market experiencing a labor shortage.

The new bill also limits the amount of so-called net operating losses, a loss in which a company’s tax deductions exceed income, that companies will be able to record.

In order to offset that change, oil companies could drill more in order to have more deductions, lowering their taxable income and tax burden.

Deductions have always been available to oil producers, but the change in the arcane nature of how net operating losses are applied could further stimulate operations, said James Chenoweth, a tax attorney with Gibson Dunn law firm.

“You don’t necessarily have the incentive to slow down, if you’re an oil producer,” said Chenoweth.

Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; Additional reporting by Ernest Scheyder in Houston, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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