WASHINGTON - The House voted yesterday to let the Justice Department pursue energy antitrust and price-fixing cases against members of the OPEC oil cartel. Critics said such attempts would likely be fruitless and could prompt a backlash from oil producers.
The bill, approved 324-84, would create a special Justice Department task force to investigate energy markets to root out manipulation and unwarranted speculation.
Measures are being considered in the Senate as well.
The House passed a similar bill targeting OPEC last year, and the Senate embraced it before it was subsequently taken out of a broader energy bill. The legislation passed yesterday 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 succeed.
But Rep. Steve Kagen (D., Wis.), chief sponsor of the anti-OPEC bill, contended it was time to stand up to the international oil organization 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 yesterday. Oil futures rose $2.02 yesterday to settle at $129.07.
OPEC leaders argue that there is plenty of oil and that the high prices are not the result of a supply shortage.
Many Republicans argued that the legislation does not address the country's energy problems. They said 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.