Feds launch gas-price probe Cantwell urged

By:  Kyung M. Song, Seattle Times
Source: The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON - For at least the third time since 2005, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will investigate the recent sharp spike in gasoline prices that left motorists both exasperated and suspicious.

The FTC notified Sen. Maria Cantwell on Monday that it has opened a probe into whether producers, refiners, retailers and others might have manipulated the market to pump up prices. The decision comes three months after the Washington Democrat and four Senate colleagues urged the agency to use its expanded powers under a 2009 law co-authored by Cantwell to prosecute attempts to artificially inflate gasoline prices.

The FTC twice conducted similar investigations -- once after hurricanes Katrina and Rita and again during the spring and summer of 2006 -- and found no evidence of manipulation and only limited price gouging. Instead, it concluded that prices rose because of disrupted inventory, higher crude oil prices, increased summer driving and other factors.

But this time, the FTC noted in its letter that U.S. oil refiners' profit margins have nearly doubled since beginning of the year even though they have more unused capacity than in 2010. Cantwell's legislation expanded the FTC's oversight into oil markets as well as lowered the burden of proof for manipulation.

Jared Leopold, Cantwell's spokesman, said she's looking forward to the investigation's findings.

"The FTC now has the necessary tools to be the cop on the beat to stop potential market manipulation," Leopold said. "Sen.Cantwell is glad to see the FTC utilize the authority granted them to protect consumers."