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FTC: No gas market manipulation

Marketplace Staff May 22, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: I hate to break this to you, but Big Oil isn’t necessarily the bad guy. Sure, gas prices are high. And yes, it’d be nice to blame someone. But the Federal Trade Commission said today there’s nothing illegal going on. No actual market manipulation. No monkeying with the law of supply and demand. Feel better now? . . .

Nope, no market manipulation. No evidence oil companies and refiners have been holding back supply to boost prices. None of that. Today’s report is from an investigation started last year after Katrina. Congress gave the FTC a pretty specific set of marching orders. Compare prices in August ’05, before the storm, to September. Data had to come from an area that was an official disaster area. Pretty narrow set of circumstances, which leads to today’s narrow report. Severin Borenstein’s the Director of the University of California Energy Institute. He says the FTC doesn’t really know what it doesn’t know about the oil markets.

SEVERIN BORENSTEIN: It’s very difficult to completely rule that out. If a company decided to not work quite so hard to put quite as much product on the market, it would be very difficult for a government agency to identify that.

RYSSDAL: I can hear you already. Some of you don’t believe the FTC. And the rest just want to know what the heck is going on with prices, anyway. We called Barbara Shook. She’s the Houston Bureau Chief for the Energy Intelligence Group.

BARBARA SHOOK: Pure, unbridaled capitalism. The price of oil is set in the New York Mercantile Exchange trading pit. And a lot of those people don’t know whether they’re trading in platinum, silver, copper or oil. They’re just playing Nintendo in a very high-stakes game.

RYSSDAL: One more thing you oughta know . . . . No market manipulation, but the FTC did rule about 20 percent of the companies it looked at were guilty of plain, old price-gouging.

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