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Oil giants face price-fix charges

The Scotsman: Oil giants face price-fix charges

“Shell, which is being investigated in relation to its Dutch operations, said that the firm had been co-operating fully with the investigation, but has yet to be informed of any decision.”

Alastair Reed

Posted Oct 17, 2004

EUROPEAN Union regulators are set to charge two global oil giants and a Dutch road builder with fixing the price of a petroleum product used to pave streets.

Oil giants Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch/Shell have both been under investigation by the European Commission as part of inquiries stretching back to 2002, along with road builders such as Ballast Nedam NV of the Netherlands. The investigation focused on the market for bitumen, a by-product from the crude oil refining process, which is primarily used in the construction industry for surfacing roads and waterproofing.

The commission is believed to have concluded that both producers and consumers have been colluding to fix prices for bitumen in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Portugal and Spain and are understood to be about to charge the involved parties.

Europe’s GBP 633 billion construction industry has come under scrutiny recently as both EU and national antitrust regulators crack down on cartels in everything from copper pipes to asphalt. “The construction sector is like a big flower that has attracted the interest of a lot of bees looking for honey,” said Christof Swaak, an antitrust lawyer with Stibbe in Amsterdam. “The Commission is just one of the bees working away.” EU bitumen production amounts to about 250 million metric tons a year, according to the European Asphalt Pavement Association.

Within the next two weeks the commission is expected to send a statement detailing its charges to the companies it raided in October 2002, which also included Total and BP. The companies will then have an opportunity to argue their case before the commission and will have two months to reply to the statement of objections.

The European Commission has the ability to levy cartel fines as high as 10 per cent of sales and competition commissioner Mario Monti, whose term ends on 31 October, has imposed almost Euro 5 billion (GBP 3.4 bn) in antitrust fines since 1999. His targets have included Microsoft, the world’s largest software maker, and Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche. Amelia Torres, the EU competition spokesman, yesterday declined to comment.

A spokesman for Esso Nederland, the Dutch division of US giant Exxon Mobil, said: “We are aware of an investigation by the EU commission in relation to the bitumen market and we’ve replied to all of the queries and questions of the EU commission in this matter. “We have not received any statement of objections.”

Shell, which is being investigated in relation to its Dutch operations, said that the firm had been co-operating fully with the investigation, but has yet to be informed of any decision. The completion of the bitumen investigation, along with any possible fines, will be left to Neelie Kroes, Monti’s successor and a former director of the fourth-largest Dutch building company. That firm is also under investigation.

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