In this appeal we consider the authority of the State Tax Commissioner to assess sales or use taxes upon plant fuel used by gas processing plants in North Dakota. We hold that the assessment of the sales or use taxes in this case is authorized. We, therefore, affirm.
Appellants Rocky Mountain Oil & Gas Association and the North Dakota Petroleum Council are nonprofit trade organizations servicing and representing the oil and gas industry in North Dakota. Appellants Western Gas Processors, Ltd. and Phillips Petroleum Company own and operate natural gas processing facilities located in North Dakota. For ease of reference, we refer to the appellants collectively as the taxpayers.
The taxpayers commenced a declaratory judgment proceeding to enjoin the North Dakota State Tax Commissioner from assessing North Dakota sales tax
The case was presented to the district court on stipulated facts as well as the testimony of Walter M. Stack, Director of Sales and Special Taxes for the Tax Commissioner. The district court dismissed the action and the taxpayers appealed.
While the facts are undisputed, we believe it helpful to outline the steps involved in gas processing. Raw gas is collected from various lease sites into the processing facilities' gathering systems. The raw gas is separated into its component parts and certain chemical contaminants are removed. The gas remaining after raw gas is processed is called residue gas. Most of the residue gas exits the plant tailgate and is sold to Montana-Dakota Utilities. However, a portion of the residue gas, called "plant fuel," is withdrawn from the residue gas stream for use by the processing facilities. The "plant fuel" is used to run hot oil furnaces, compression/refrigeration units, flares, sulfur plant facilities, and booster stations along the pipeline system. All plant fuel at issue is residue gas that was processed in the taxpayers' processing facilities.
Our standard of review of a judgment declaratory in nature is the same as in any other case. NDCC § 32-23-07; American Hardware Mutual Ins. Co. v. Dairyland Ins. Co., 304 N.W.2d 687, 689 (N.D.1981). The interpretation of a statute is a question of law, fully reviewable by this Court. Ladish Malting Co. v. Stutsman County, 351 N.W.2d 712, 718 (N.D. 1984). In determining the meaning of statutes, the primary objective is to ascertain the intent of the Legislature. Ladish Malting Co., supra. The legislative intent must first be sought from the language of the statute; however, if a tax statute is ambiguous so that the legislative intention with respect to the meaning of the statute is doubtful, the doubt must be resolved in favor of the taxpayer. Ladish Malting Co., supra.
The taxpayers advance three arguments in support of their contention that the Tax Commissioner does not have the statutory authority to assess sales or use taxes upon plant fuel used by the processing facilities. First, the taxpayers argue that the transaction by which plant fuel is obtained is not a "retail sale" within the meaning of NDCC § 57-39.2-02.1
We believe the transaction by which the processors obtain plant fuel constitutes a "sale." The term "sale" is broadly defined
A "retail sale" is the sale of tangible personal property to a consumer. NDCC § 57-39.2-01(7). Because the taxpayers are the consumers of the plant fuel at issue, the transaction falls squarely within the definitions of "sale" and "retail sale" in NDCC § 57-39.2-01.
The taxpayers' second argument is that because plant fuel is used in the processing operations, it is excluded from the definition of retail sale under the "for processing or for resale exclusion" found in NDCC § 57-39.2-01(7). Retail sale is defined as "the sale, including the leasing or renting, to a consumer or to any person for any purpose, other than for processing or for resale, of tangible personal property...." NDCC § 57-39.2-01(7). [Emphasis supplied.] Section 57-39.2-01(7) also defines the term "processing" as follows:
The plant fuel used by the processors in their operations does not become an integral or an ingredient, or component part of other products intended to be sold ultimately at retail. The plant fuel is consumed by the processors and is never resold. Thus, the plant fuel used by the processing facilities is not personal property that is "processed" and so the exclusion "for processing or for resale" does not apply.
The taxpayers warn that such an interpretation retroactively converts the sale of raw gas "for processing or for resale" into a retail sale if and when such raw gas is used in the processing facilities. A similar argument was considered by the Supreme Court of Illinois in Mobil Oil Corporation v. Johnson, 93 Ill.2d 126, 66 Ill.Dec. 285, 442 N.E.2d 846 (1982).
In Mobil Oil, Mobil contested the assessment of Illinois use tax upon its use of three refinery fuels produced incidentally during the process of refining crude oil. Mobil Oil Corp., supra 66 Ill.Dec. at 287, 442 N.E.2d at 848. Mobil argued that it did not purchase crude oil "at retail" because its sole purpose in purchasing crude oil was to refine it, not to use it. Mobil Oil Corp., supra, 66 Ill.Dec. at 288, 442 N.E.2d at 849. The Illinois sales and use tax statutes are similar to North Dakota's sales and use tax statutes. Construing the Illinois statutes, the court held that because Mobil used the refinery fuels in its operations, it was subject to use tax. Mobil Oil Corp., supra, 66 Ill.Dec. at 289, 442 N.E.2d at 850. The court relied on its previous holding that a single sale is not an indivisible unit but taxability is determined by the uses to which the property is put. Mobil Oil Corp., supra, 66 Ill.Dec. at 290, 442 N.E.2d
The Attorney General has concluded that a retail sales tax must be paid on that part of refined gas consumed in the operation of a refinery, if the raw gas is owned by others and processed by the refiner under contracts that authorize the refiner to use some of the refined gas to operate the refinery. N.D. Att'y Gen.Op. 82-55, p. 166. While not binding upon this Court, an Attorney General's opinion has important bearing upon the construction and interpretation of a statute. State v. Reich, 298 N.W.2d 468, 471 (N.D.1980).
We find further support for our determination that plant fuel is subject to sales or use taxes from the construction of the tax statutes by the agency responsible for their administration. Walter M. Stack, Director of the Sales and Special Taxes Division of the North Dakota State Tax Department, testified that when raw material is purchased for the purpose of processing or manufacturing, the taxpayer does not at that point pay a retail sales tax. However, when the taxpayer converts to its own use some of the raw material, the "for processing" exclusion no longer applies.
The practical construction of a statute by the agency administering the law is entitled to some weight in construing the statute, if the agency interpretation does not contradict clear and unambiguous statutory language. Clapp v. Cass County, 236 N.W.2d 850, 856 (N.D.1975). We believe that the construction and application of the sales and use tax laws by the Tax Commissioner in this case are clearly supported by the language of the statutes.
The third argument advanced by the taxpayers is that NDCC § 57-39.2-04, which sets forth specific exemptions from the sales tax, precludes assessment of sales or use taxes on plant fuel. Section 57-39.2-04(10), NDCC, provides:
The taxpayers contend that because plant fuel is subject to a "special tax," namely, the oil and gas gross production tax imposed by NDCC § 57-51-02, it is exempt from sales or use taxes. The taxpayers argue that the oil and gas gross production tax is an "in lieu" tax so that payment of the gross production tax precludes the assessment of additional excise taxes on oil and gas.
The claimant of a tax exemption has the burden of establishing its exempt status, and a tax-exemption statute will be strictly construed against the claimant. Minot Farmers Elevator v. Conrad, 386 N.W.2d 463, 466 (N.D.1986); Grant Farmers Mutual Fire & Lightning Ins. Co. v. State by Conrad, 347 N.W.2d 324, 327 (N.D.1984). In construing statutes, we seek the Legislature's intent initially from the statutory language. County of Stutsman v. State Historical Society of North Dakota, 371 N.W.2d 321, 325 (N.D.1985). We give meaning to every word, phrase and sentence. See State ex rel. Olson v. Bakken, 329 N.W.2d 575, 578 (N.D.1983).
We reject the taxpayers' argument that plant fuel is exempt from sales or use taxes because it is subject to the gross production tax. The express language of the statutes demonstrates the Legislature's intention not to exempt plant fuel from sales or use taxes. Section 57-39.2-04(10), NDCC, exempts from sales tax the "[g]ross receipts from the sales of gasoline, insurance premiums, or any other product, except as otherwise provided, upon which the state of North Dakota imposes a special tax." [Emphasis supplied.] The Legislature has provided otherwise in the oil and gas gross production tax provisions. Section 57-51-03, NDCC, states:
The taxpayers themselves characterize the sales and use taxes as excise taxes. Because the Legislature has expressly provided that the gross production tax is not in lieu of excise taxes, we do not believe the Legislature intended to exempt plant fuel from sales or use taxes under the exemption provided by NDCC § 57-39.2-04(10).
Because we hold that the Tax Commissioner has the statutory authority to levy the taxes at issue, we must address the taxpayers' claim that the assessment of sales or use taxes upon plant fuel under the circumstances of this case violates the commerce clause of the federal Constitution by impermissibly burdening interstate commerce.
The taxpayers' constitutional argument is based upon the premise that the plant fuel plays an important role in interstate commerce by facilitating the movement of gas through the pipeline system. However, the stipulation of facts fails to disclose how much of the processed gas, if any, finds its way into interstate commerce or how much of the plant fuel is used to run booster stations which keep the gas flowing through the pipeline system. Deciding the constitutional question without evidence of interstate commerce would amount to nothing more than giving an advisory opinion on an abstract, hypothetical legal question. Cf. State v. King, 355 N.W.2d 807, 809 (N.D.1984). Therefore, we decline to decide the constitutional issue.
In sum, we conclude that the Tax Commissioner has the statutory authority to levy sales or use taxes with respect to the "plant fuel" consumed by the processing facilities. Accordingly, the judgment of the district court is affirmed.
ERICKSTAD, C.J., MESCHKE, J., and PEDERSON, Surrogate Justice, concur.
PEDERSON, Surrogate Justice, sitting in place of GIERKE, J., disqualified.
VANDE WALLE, Justice, dissenting.
I respectfully dissent. Despite the holding of Mobil Oil Corporation v. Johnson, 93 Ill.2d 126, 66 Ill.Dec. 285, 442 N.E.2d 846 (1982), to the contrary, I do not agree that under North Dakota statutes the gas used by the plant processors in their operations is subject to the use or sales tax. In the first instance I would hold the transaction does not constitute a sale and, if I were to conclude it constituted a sale, I would nevertheless hold it was exempt under the "for processing or for resale" exclusion contained in the definition of "sale" in Section 57-39.2-01(7), N.D.C.C. The Tax Commissioner draws too fine a distinction between property which is intended to become a part of the property sold ultimately at retail and the use of the gas, under these circumstances, to produce that property. Thus I assume this holding will also apply in those situations in which gas produced with oil is used to fuel a production pump at the wellsite, as permitted by most leases, and that such gas will now be considered sold to the operator. Or, if it is held that the operator cannot purchase from itself, it will at least be considered a sale to the extent of the lessor's royalty interest in the production. I do not believe that the tax statutes must be construed to tax everything and anything that is not nailed down if there is any conceivable construction which will support taxation.
I am also disturbed by the posture of this case. It was brought as a declaratory-judgment action. But we should not decide the legislative intent of these statutes in a
Unless there is a reasonable explanation for an abrupt change in interpretation of applicable statutes, changes in taxation policies are more properly matters for legislative determination than for the philosophy of the Tax Commissioner.