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Royal Dutch Shell Plc .com: BP suspends three traders amid calls to police markets

From The Financial Times
By Jeremy Grant in Washington

Published: July 3 2006 03:29 | Last updated: July 3 2006 03:29

BP, the UK energy group, has suspended three Houston-based traders at the centre of an alleged propane price manipulation scheme, as alarm rose in Washington over the need to police energy markets.

Senior US senators have warned congress that “too many trades” are occurring without regulatory oversight.

Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said: “More and more trading is being conducted by large oil and gas traders on electronic markets where there is no oversight. It’s time to put the cop back on the beat in these markets to make sure ordinary Americans aren’t ripped off.”

Mr Levin’s call, in a bipartisan report to congress last week by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, is the clearest sign yet that lawmakers believe the US energy markets are still open to manipulation years after the collapse of Enron exposed the weakness of lightly regulated energy markets.

Mr Levin and Norm Coleman, his Republican counterpart, urged congress to “eliminate the Enron loophole” by extending the power of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the US futures industry regulator, to oversee over-the-counter (OTC) energy markets.

It was in such markets that the alleged BP propane scheme took place. But the CFTC, which regulates exchange-traded energy futures, only spotted the alleged trouble after receiving tip-offs from market participants in the OTC markets, people familiar with the investigation said.

A sweeping CFTC civil lawsuit last week alleged that a five-man team at BP’s natural gas trading desk in Houston cornered the market for TET propane, which millions of low-income Americans use to heat homes and fuel cookers and barbecues.

By building up a dominant position, BP drove up the price of the fuel, the suit claimed.

BP denies any manipulation took place. It says it fired two from the team some time ago. The other three were escorted out of BP’s Houston offices on Friday after being put on “administrative leave”, people familiar with the matter said.

One is Cameron Byers, a British graduate of Insead business school and chief executive of North American Gas and Power (NAGP). The unit is BP’s trading arm in North America, where the group is the biggest player in propane.

The others are Martin Marz, former NAGP compliance manager, and James Summers, former vice president of natural gas liquids trading within NAGP.

A fourth, Dennis Abbott is co-operating with the US Department of Justice after pleading guilty to conspiring to manipulate and corner the propane market in the winter of 2004.

BP declined to comment.

BP and other traders of propane typically buy and sell propane and other fuels either using the telephone, or on internet-based markets such as Chalkboard, where the alleged price manipulation took place.

Any attempt to give the CFTC added powers to oversee the OTC markets would present a huge challenge given the opaque nature of record-keeping in such markets and the need to substantially boost the CFTC’s budget.

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