House action targets OPEC

May 20, 2008 3:01:58 PM PDT
The House voted Tuesday to let the Justice Department pursue energy antitrust and price fixing cases against members of the OPEC oil cartel, although critics said such attempts would likely be fruitless and could prompt a backlash from oil producers. The bill, approved 324-84, also would create a special Justice Department task force to investigate energy markets to root out manipulation and unwarranted speculation.

Similar measures are part of a package of Democratic energy proposals being considered in the Senate.

The White House said President Bush would be advised to veto the bill, should it be sent to his desk.

The legislation could "harm U.S. interests abroad, discourage investment in the U.S. economy, potentially limit the availability of gasoline, and possibly further increase fuel prices," the White House said in a statement to lawmakers.

The House passed much the same bill targeting OPEC last year and the Senate embraced it, only to see the provision subsequently taken out of a broader energy bill. The legislation passed Tuesday would remove the current prohibition against pursuing antitrust actions against a sovereign country.

Many energy experts and legal scholars doubt that such an enforcement action would be successful.

But Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Wis., chief sponsor of the anti-OPEC bill, contended it's time to stand up to the international oil cartel that openly establishes production limits among member countries to influence prices. Recently OPEC has refused to increase production, although oil prices have reached record levels, nearing $130 a barrel as the House voted Tuesday. OPEC leaders argue that there's plenty of oil and the high prices are not the result of a supply shortage.

Separately, three senators sent a letter to Bush urging him to create a task force at Justice to investigate possible fraud and manipulation in oil and gasoline markets. The White House, opposing the House-passed bill, said such a task force isn't needed because the Federal Trade Commission already deals with such matters.

The letter was signed by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C.

The House passed the bill without debate after it was the subject of floor exchanges among lawmakers Monday.

"Let's not overlook the elephant in the room," Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said during Monday's debate, alluding to the OPEC cartel. He said U.S. oil policy "calls for more than begging for help," noting President Bush's trip to Saudi Arabia last week when he tried to persuade Saudi leaders to significantly increase production, but was rebuffed.

But many Republicans argued that the legislation, similar to a bill pushed through by Democrats last year, does not address the country's energy problems.

"This bill was not an answer last year and it's not an answer this year," said Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., reiterating GOP arguments that Congress should open the way for more domestic oil production including drilling in the protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and some offshore waters that have been off limits to oil companies for more than 25 years.

"This legislation is long on psychic compensation and short on affect," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.