Buried in the huge budget-reconciliation bill, on which House and Senate conferees are putting the final touches right now, are a few paragraphs that accomplish an extraordinary feat. They roll back the price of a barrel of crude oil to what it sold for two years ago. They create this pretend price for the benefit of a small group of the politically well connected. You still won't be able to buy gasoline for $1.73 per gal. as you did then, instead of today's $2.28. You still won't be able to buy home heating oil for $1.60 per gal., in place of today's $2.39. But a select group of investors and companies will walk away with billions of dollars in tax subsidies, not from oil but from the marketing of a dubious concoction of synthetic fuel produced from coal and dependent on government tax credits tied to the price of oil.
From 2003 through 2005, TIME estimates, the synfuel industry raked in $9 billion in tax credits. That means the lucky few collectively cut their tax bills by that amount, which would be enough to cover a year's worth of federal taxes for 20 million Americans who make less than $20,000 a year and pay income taxes. How important is the tax credit to synfuel producers? In its latest annual report, Headwaters Inc., a Utah-based purveyor of synfuel processes and substances, says flatly, "Headwaters does not believe that production of synthetic fuel will be profitable absent the tax credits."