Monday May 16, 2011 | 01:34 PM

A national environmental group is running radio ads in Portland and other parts of Maine urging GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe to back a bid by Senate Democrats to eliminate billions of dollars with or tax breaks for the nation’s largest oil companies.

The Natural Resources Defense Council says it is including the two senators from Maine in a $50,000 radio ad campaign spanning several other states – Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and James Webb of Virginia and GOP Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois also are targeted, for instance – because they it is “hopeful” Collins and Snowe might vote for the bill seeking to end $21 billion in tax breaks over ten years for the five largest oil companies.
 
Similar proposals have failed before, but Democrats have brought it back up in a climate of rising oil prices and lawmakers last week grilled oil executives at a Senate Finance Committee hearing. The money from the tax breaks would go to deficit reduction, Democrats say.
 
The oil executives argued that it was unfair to take away the corporate tax breaks from just one industry, that it could result in job losses, and said their companies were not the culprit for gas prices that are hitting $4 per gallon and above at the pump. The
 
A number of Republicans have said cutting back oil company tax breaks wouldn’t help lower gas prices. But Collins and Snowe have not yet said how they will vote on the bill up for a vote this week, probably initially for a procedural motion to see if there are the 60 votes needed to proceed to a final debate and vote.
 
In the spot airing in Maine, a narrator says, “At a time when Americans are struggling to pay their bills, put food on the table and fill up their gas tanks, giving tax breaks to the oil industry makes no sense. There's a bill in Congress to eliminate this corporate welfare. Tell Senators Snowe and Collins to end handouts to Big Oil.”
 
Why were Snowe and Collins targeted?
 
“Especially given the importance of Maine's ocean economy and the fragility of its coastline, we're hopeful that Sens. Snowe and Collins realize it's important to side with taxpayers from Maine and across America instead of with Big Oil on the issue of taxpayer subsidies for oil companies,” said Bob Keefe, NRDC’s press secretary, in an email interview.
 
A Collins spokesman said that Collins has “long supported eliminating certain tax subsidies for major oil companies.” Collins has previously sponsored similar legislation, said Kevin Kelley, her spokesman. She also introduced, along with Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., an amendment several years ago to a budget bill that would have shifted money from the tax breaks into tax credits for consumers to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects and to pay for alternative fuel research, Kelley said.
 
Collins is “currently reviewing the specifics” of the Democrats’ current oil company tax break bill, but notes that “while eliminating or reducing these tax breaks may be good tax policy and help with deficit reduction, the Democrats’ proposal will have no impact on the price that consumers pay at the pump,” Kelley said.
 
Collins is pushing a bipartisan bill that seeks to curb excessive speculation on energy commodities, something she says would impact oil prices.
 
For her part, Snowe, who is on the finance committee, said last week that she wants to know more about the tax breaks and whether they merely serve to increase company profits without any benefit to consumers.
 
“Since 2005, the price of oil increased 87 percent while our deficits have increased four-fold. In contrast, oil company profits have remained roughly constant every year since 2005,” said Snowe, in a statement following the hearing. “This raises the fundamental question about where are the results of these tax policies – are they assisting Americans with affordable supplies of energy or are they assisting companies increase corporate profits?”
 
In 2006, Snowe supported legislation to scale back major oil company tax breaks and use the money to invest in alternative and renewable energy sources.
 
“At a time of record profits for oil companies and skyrocketing energy costs for consumers, tax breaks for the oil industry are not only unnecessary, they are reckless,” Snowe said in 2006. “It would be far wiser to redirect the tax expenditures from these provision to incentives, such as the development of alternative and renewable energy sources from products that are developed, grown and manufactured domestically, so that the current energy crisis can be the last one.”

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
Kevin can be reached at 317-6256 or kmiller@mainetoday.com

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