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U.S. House votes to allow lawsuit against OPEC

May 21, 2008|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Congress' latest answer to rising gasoline prices: Sue OPEC.

Defying a White House veto threat, the House on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would allow the Justice Department to pursue legal action against the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries for conspiring to restrict supplies or drive up prices.

It was the second time in a week that a majority of Republicans joined Democrats to support an energy measure over the Bush administration's objections and came as the average price for a gallon of self-serve regular set more records Tuesday -- $3.80 nationally and $3.976 in California, according to AAA.

The White House warned that the measure could invite retaliatory action by the oil cartel, which supplies about 6 million barrels of crude to the United States every day.

But with lawmakers preparing to head home for Memorial Day, the traditional start of the summer driving season, they are scrambling to show they are doing something to respond to high fuel costs -- even though they acknowledge limits to what they can do to provide immediate relief.

Last week, Congress overwhelmingly voted to limit oil shipments to the government's emergency stockpile in hopes of putting more gasoline on the market. This week, lawmakers are bringing oil industry executives back to Capitol Hill for grilling.

The House OPEC measure was approved 324 to 84. A similar measure, dubbed NOPEC for the No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act, passed the Senate last year by a 70 to 23 vote, but was set aside after a White House veto threat.

The House measure would create a Justice Department task force to investigate price gouging and manipulation in oil markets and require a study of the effect of oil industry mergers on fuel prices.

The bill's supporters said it would strip OPEC of the ability to use the foreign "sovereign immunity" shield to avoid the reach of U.S. antitrust laws in American courts.

Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) said during debate Monday that President Bush's failure to persuade Saudi Arabia to sharply increase oil production during his visit to the Middle East last week underscored the need for the legislation.

"OPEC's concerted manipulation of world oil marketplaces calls for more than begging for help," Scott said. "It calls for full antitrust enforcement."

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) scoffed at the measure, arguing it was "long on psychic compensation" but unlikely to bring down gas prices. He assailed Democrats for blocking efforts to increase domestic oil drilling, complaining that the bill "doesn't outlaw the congressional cartel that has blocked our energy production in this country."

"Even if this bill gets vetoed, which I believe it will, we're sending a message over to the OPEC countries that we want to litigate," King said, warning of possible reprisals.

OPEC could speed the flow of oil to the market, King said. "Or they might just decide, a little bit out of spite, to turn the spigot down a little bit to say, 'We'll show you.' "

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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