When America's oil and natural gas companies report quarterly earnings, as a number are doing this week, lots of folks wonder: Who's benefiting?

In large part, we are - millions of Americans who in one form or another own stock in oil and natural gas companies.

Updating its 2007 study on oil and natural gas company ownership, the Sonecon consulting firm found that nearly 50 percent of all corporate shares are held by public and private pension and retirement funds, including 401(k)s, and IRAs. Individual investors own 20 percent, while financial institutions and asset management companies own 27 percent. That's 97 percent. Less than 3 percent is owned by corporate officers and board members.

In a conference call with reporters Kyle Isakower, API's vice president of regulatory and economic policy, explained what those percentages mean:

"The U.S. oil and natural gas industry ... supports 9.2 million jobs and pays more taxes than any other industry and at higher effective rates. Now, as this new Sonecon study shows, it also benefits millions of Americans who are its true owners. Policy proposals ... can give the impression that if only a few rich companies or executives would pay more, the rest of America would have to pay less, or even nothing at all. The reality is far different. The owners of America's oil and natural gas companies are largely retirees or middle-class Americans saving for retirement. The cost of higher taxes on this industry would be borne largely by them, not by CEOs."

Sonecon's Robert J. Shapiro, one of the report's co-authors, said research shows a decline in oil and natural gas company shares held by corporate managers due to increased investment by institutional investors. That's because the industry has outperformed the overall market the past five or six years. "This sector has become particularly attractive for everyone else," Shapiro said.

  • About 21 percent of oil and natural gas shares are in mutual funds, which are held by 52.3 million American households with a median annual income of $80,000 in 2011.
  • Nearly 18 percent of industry shares are held through IRAs, with 48.6 million households owning one or more IRAs. Of those IRA holders, 80 percent had annual incomes of $70,000 or less in 2010.
  • More than 31 percent of industry shares are owned by public or private pension plans, including 401(k)s (but not including IRAs). The funds manage assets for more than 60 million households, with an average account value of less than $55,000.

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The bigger picture: Instead of punitive tax increases on an industry whose strong performance benefits so many Americans from an investment/retirement standpoint, why not find ways to let an industry that contributed $476 billion to the economy last year do more: more jobs, more energy to secure the country's future, more revenue for government.

It can be done. Here's how.