Latest FTC Gas Price Probe Coming to a Close

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Latest FTC Gas Price Probe Coming to a Close

HOUSTON -- The latest Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation into U.S. gas prices should be complete by the end of 2006, a senior FTC attorney specializing in energy issues said last week, MarketWatch reported.

The two-pronged study -- a review of the reasons for the April 2006 price spike and an analysis of oil industry profits -- should be ready later this year, John Seesel, the FTC's associate general counsel for energy, said on the sidelines of a conference in Houston. Gas prices have fallen dramatically since President George W. Bush ordered the probe amid a spring price run-up, according to the MarketWatch report.

Earlier, Seesel spoke on a panel discussion titled, "Gasoline Pricing Investigations: Good Laws or Bad Politics." The FTC's last major investigation of gasoline, released in May, found evidence of some price gouging after Hurricane Katrina, but concluded that the price increases were the result of regional competitive circumstances, not market manipulation.

Valero Energy Corp. Vice President Marty Loeber praised the FTC report for being "very thoughtful and in-depth." But some lawmakers on Capitol Hill called the report inadequate.

President Bush in April asked the FTC to work with the U.S. Department of Justice to "conduct inquiries into cheating or illegal manipulation related to current gasoline prices," according to a White House fact sheet cited by MarketWatch.

Seesel described the current study as an "inquiry" rather than a full-blown investigation. The current study doesn't involve subpoenas, he noted.

By contrast, as part of its investigation into the spring run-up in California gasoline prices, the California Attorney General's office is questioning the chief executives of the state's refiners, said California's Deputy Attorney General Margaret Spencer. Spencer likened the sort of document discovery in the probe to that from a grand jury investigation, MarketWatch said. Her department has questioned the chief executives from four of the state's seven refiners and has a commitment that two of the others will cooperate. Spencer declined to discuss specific companies, including the identity of the seventh refiner that so far hasn't acceded to questioning.

The interviews have been helpful in gleaning the CEO's "unique knowledge of their companies' strategic plans and focus," Spencer said, adding: "I have been largely impressed by the ability of those CEOs whom we have interrogated to date to express in a clear fashion their companies' approach to dealing with past and current supply problems, and their plans for addressing a future that may include alternative fuels."