At a time when the United States needs to increase domestic energy production and leaders of both political parties say they support an “all of the above” energy strategy, Congress should level the playing field and give all sources of domestic energy — renewable and non-renewable alike — a fair shot at success in the marketplace.
The federal government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in the energy market, but for nearly 30 years, that’s exactly what it has been doing with a provision in the tax code that authorizes the formation of master limited partnerships (MLPs). An MLP is a business structure that is taxed as a partnership, but whose ownership interests are traded like corporate stock on a market.
By statute, MLPs have only been available to investors in energy portfolios for oil, natural gas, coal extraction, and pipeline projects. These projects get access to capital at a lower cost and are more liquid than traditional financing approaches to energy projects, making them highly effective at attracting private investment. Investors in renewable energy projects, however, have been explicitly prevented from forming MLPs, starving a growing portion of America’s domestic energy sector of the capital it needs to build and grow.
The Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act is a straightforward, powerful tweak to the federal tax code that could unleash significant private capital into the energy market.
The legislation, which is just over 200 words long, would level the playing field between traditional and new energy businesses by helping energy-generation and transmission companies form master limited partnerships, which combine the funding advantages of corporations and the tax advantages of partnerships.
By allowing additional forms of energy development to access this market tool, we can go beyond political rhetoric and start delivering an all-of-the-above energy strategy.
How Master Limited Partnerships Work
An MLP consists of limited partners (investors) and general partners (managers). The limited partners — who can number in the thousands — provide capital and receive quarterly required distributions generally equivalent to shareholder dividends in a C-corporation. They play no role in the operation of the MLP, while the general partners manage the MLP’s daily operations. General partners can take the form of another company or a group of individuals, typically holding a 2 percent ownership stake.
Writing in the New York Times on June 2, Dan Reicher and Felix Mormann of Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance described the appeal of MLPs: “Master limited partnerships carry the fund-raising advantages of a corporation: ownership interests are publicly traded and offer investors the liquidity, limited liability and dividends of classic corporations. Their market capitalization exceeds $350 billion. With average dividends of just 6 percent, these investment vehicles could substantially reduce the cost of financing renewables.”
Because MLPs are so attractive to investors, they have been proven to bring new capital into American energy projects. This is especially important in the case of renewable-energy generation, where it is harder for investors to see as quick a return as compared to fossil fuel-based energy generation, for which much of the processing and transportation infrastructure was built decades ago. Constructing the same level of critical infrastructure for renewable energy sources will take time and investment, so the MLP Parity Act levels the playing field and helps address that problem.
An MLP must generate at least 90 percent of its income from qualified sources, such as real estate or natural resources, including crude oil, natural gas, petroleum products, coal, timber, and other minerals. Section 613 of the federal tax code specifically requires qualifying energy sources to be “depletable” resources – meaning we are working against our own goal of an “all of the above” energy strategy that includes additional homegrown renewable energy sources.
How the MLP Parity Act Helps
The MLP Parity Act simply expands the definition of “qualified” sources to include clean energy resources and infrastructure projects. Specifically included are those energy technologies that qualify under Sections 45 and 48 of the tax code, including wind, closed and open loop biomass, geothermal, solar, municipal solid waste, hydropower, marine and hydrokinetic, fuel cells, and combined heat and power.
The legislation also allows for a range of transportation fuels to qualify, including cellulosic, biodiesel, and algae-based fuels.
The MLP Parity Act does not affect any current MLP entity. All projects currently eligible to structure as MLPs would continue to qualify exactly as they would under existing law.
Read more via U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE)