Oil price gaming allegations may get another look

Oil companies scoff at the repeated charges of fuel price manipulation. Above, Dan Chandler fills his tank at a gas station in Calabasas on Friday.
(Mel Melcon, Los Angeles Times)

SACRAMENTO — California drivers have suffered through dozens of unexpected gasoline-price spikes over the last decade, and just about every incident has spurred allegations of market manipulation and politicians’ demands for investigations.

But none of the probes by the state attorney general, other state agencies and journalists has come up with smoking-gun proof that oil companies were gaming prices. The volatility, many studies found, could be traced to peculiarities in the California market, such as the state’s special fuel blend, shortage of refinery capacity and lack of pipeline access to Gulf Coast supplies.

With gas prices up and down again this year, lawmakers now want to take another look.

Last month, legislators passed a measure by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) that would direct the California Energy Commission to analyze data and consult with other state and federal agencies to ferret out possible fuel price manipulation. SB 448 now awaits the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown, who hasn’t taken a public position on the measure.


The measure should determine “once and for all” if there’s something illegal going on, said Tim O’Connor of the Environmental Defense Fund, a SB 448 supporter.

Oil companies scoff at the repeated charges. “There have been some two dozen investigations to the best of our knowledge over the last 20 years,” said Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Assn., a trade group. “None have found evidence of market manipulation or anti-competitive behavior.”

Also on the auto front

Motorists and homeowners who don’t like getting fat envelopes from insurance companies soon can opt to get those important documents electronically only.

Brown recently signed an insurer-sponsored bill, SB 251 by Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), that allows policyholders to get policies and renewal notices on their computers or smartphones. “Insurance customers are shopping online and, increasingly, they want their policies serviced online,” said Armand Feliciano, vice president of the Assn. of California Insurance Companies.

Critics worry that essential information, such as cancellation notices, could be lost if only sent electronically. “Some things are just too important for email,” said Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a consumer group.

Fed favorite

President Obama hasn’t tipped his hand about who he’ll name as the nation’s next top central banker.

But, Federal Reserve Vice Chair Janet Yellen is a clear favorite among staff and alumni of UC Berkeley, where she taught macroeconomics for 26 years.

“If I was teaching a class for future Fed chairs, she would get an A, unless she got an A-plus,” said former Yellen colleague James A. Wilcox, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus. “I think she is the right person for the job.”

Those sentiments were echoed by former MBA student Victor d’Allant, founder of San Francisco Internet company Dallant Networks.

“She was very good at explaining very complex concepts in macroeconomics and applying them to real life,” said d’Allant, who took Macro 101 from Yellen in 1986.

Twitter: @MarcLifsher