This story was originally published by ProPublica.
Phyllis Taylor’s company is responsible for the longest-running oil spill in U.S. history. That’s been a disaster for the Gulf of Mexico — but a tax bonanza for Taylor.
After the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded in 2010, environmentalists surveying the damage in the Gulf of Mexico came upon a mystery. The water had oil slicks that, because of the currents, couldn’t have originated from the site of the notorious accident.
With the help of satellite imagery, they figured out that oil was leaking from a different spill, a six-year-old disaster the public knew almost nothing about. In September 2004, Hurricane Ivan had swept the legs out from under a 40-story oil-drilling platform operated by a company called Taylor Energy, causing a leak that continues to this day. It is the longest-running — and by one estimate, the largest
— U.S. oil spill ever recorded, a contentious saga that prompted a recent “60 Minutes” segment.
It’s been an environmental nightmare for the region — but a massive tax bonanza for Phyllis Taylor, the owner of Taylor Energy and the fallen rig.
According to ProPublica’s analysis of a secret trove of tax data, from 2005 to 2018, Taylor took in some $444 million in income, most of it from wages, interest, dividends and capital gains, and didn’t pay a cent in federal income tax.
That’s in significant measure because she was able to transform money her company was compelled to spend cleaning up the oil spill into a perfectly legal nine-figure tax write-off for herself.
Representatives for Taylor, now 80, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Taylor is part of a set of ultrawealthy Americans who manage to avoid federal income taxes for years on end by using their businesses
or leisure interests
to throw off enough deductions to offset the millions or even billions of dollars they make. We’ve nicknamed the group the biggest losers. Taylor’s story shows just how lucrative it can be to be a member of that particular club.
Patrick Taylor, Phyllis Taylor’s husband, founded Taylor Energy in 1979. He would eventually become the richest man in Louisiana and enjoyed the sort of lifestyle that went with the title. He raced speedboats on the Mississippi, rode bulls in rodeos and skydived more than 500 times. But he often said he preferred to be known for his role in advocating for the creation
of a beloved state program that provided scholarships to Louisiana colleges and universities.
Taylor Energy operated out of an ornate four-story mansion in New Orleans, off Lee Circle, where a statue of Robert E. Lee stood until 2017. Female employees were not allowed to wear pants, and employees addressed their superiors as “sir” or “ma’am.” Patrick’s office had hand-painted blue-and-white silk wallpaper from a Russian palace, while a nearby dining room featured marble fountains from an 18th-century French chateau. Rooms were named after Ronald Reagan and the British naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson
Phyllis cut an unusual figure in the world of brash wildcatters. She started out in the business working for another Louisiana oilman, sometimes being mistaken
for his coffee-bearing assistant before he surprised the men in the room by announcing she was his attorney. She married Patrick Taylor in 1964 and served on the board of directors of Taylor Energy while he ran the company.