WASHINGTON – The House voted Tuesday to let the Justice Department pursue energy antitrust and price fixing cases against members of the OPEC oil cartel, although critics said such attempts would likely be fruitless and could prompt a backlash from oil producers.
The bill, approved 324-84, also would create a special Justice Department task force to investigate energy markets to root out manipulation and unwarranted speculation.
Similar measures are part of a package of Democratic energy proposals being considered in the Senate.
The House passed a similar bill targeting OPEC last year and the Senate embraced it, only to see the provision subsequently taken out of a broader energy bill. The legislation passed Tuesday would remove the current prohibition against pursuing antitrust actions against a sovereign country.
Many energy experts and legal scholars doubt that such an enforcement action would be successful.
But Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Wis., chief sponsor of the anti-OPEC bill, contended it's time to stand up to the international oil cartel that openly establishes production limits among member countries to influence prices. Recently OPEC has refused to increase production, although oil prices have reached record levels, nearing $130 a barrel as the House voted Tuesday. OPEC leaders argue that there's plenty of oil and the high prices are not the result of a supply shortage.
The House passed the bill without debate after it was the subject of floor exchanges among lawmakers Monday.
"Let's not overlook the elephant in the room," Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said during Monday's debate, alluding to the OPEC cartel. He said U.S. oil policy "calls for more than begging for help," noting President Bush's trip to Saudi Arabia last week when he tried to persuade Saudi leaders to significantly increase production, but was rebuffed.
But many Republicans argued that the legislation, similar to a bill pushed through by Democrats last year, does not address the country's energy problems.
"This bill was not an answer last year and it's not an answer this year," said Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., reiterating GOP arguments that Congress should open the way for more domestic oil production including drilling in the protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and some offshore waters that have been off limits to oil companies for more than 25 years.
"This legislation is long on psychic compensation and short on affect," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.