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California

California attorney general sues gas trading companies, alleging price manipulation

California gas prices
California gas prices have been dropping during the coronavirus shutdown, but the state on Monday filed a lawsuit challenging past pricing practices.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

California sued two gasoline trading firms on Monday, alleging that they took advantage of market disruptions from a 2015 refinery explosion in Torrance by improperly driving up the price that motorists pay at the pump and gaining windfall profits.

The lawsuit was filed by state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, who seeks an injunction and monetary damages against Vitol Inc. and SK Energy Americas.

“Price gouging, whether it is toilet paper or gasoline, it stinks,” Becerra said during a press call. “It’s the kind of greed that hurts your grandma, it hurts the good Samaritan, it hurts everyday Americans who have to fill up their gas tanks.”

Becerra alleged that the multinational companies named in the case “manipulated gas prices to illegally enrich themselves at the cost of California consumers at the gas pump” after a February 2015 explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance that produced about 10% of the state’s gasoline. ExxonMobil is not named in the lawsuit and is not alleged to have done anything improper.

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The attorney general alleges that Vitol Inc. and SK negotiated large contracts to supply gasoline and gasoline blending components, including one deal for more than 10 million gallons. He said he believes the alleged unfair competition practices and price manipulation by the two trading firms may have resulted in a more than 1-cent increase in the price of gas, a level that could generate $150 million in profits for the volumes cited in the case.

“Unfortunately for California consumers, Defendants Vitol and SK participated in a scheme to drive up and manipulate the spot market price for gasoline so that they could realize windfall profits on these large contracts to deliver gasoline and gasoline blending components,” said the lawsuit filed in San Francisco County Superior Court.

A group of activists on Saturday marked the fifth anniversary of an explosion at the Exxon Mobil refinery in Torrance that injured four workers and prompted continuing concerns about the potential for an even more catastrophic incident and the release of toxic chemicals and fumes into local communities.

SK Energy Americas is a Houston-based American affiliate of an energy firm headquartered in Singapore, while Vitol Inc. is affiliated with a Dutch energy company. Representatives of the firms were not immediately available to comment on the lawsuit.

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The lawsuit was filed as gas prices in California have been dropping because of low demand caused largely by the stay-at-home order that has closed many parts of the economy in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

California’s average price per gallon on Monday was $2.74, which is down from $3.48 on Feb. 24 but remains the second-highest price in the country after Hawaii, according to the American Automobile Assn. The national average gas price on Monday was $1.78 and has been inching up as more states reopen their economies, AAA said.

The allegations made in the lawsuit are not related to the pandemic, during which Becerra said he has received several thousand complaints and reports of other kinds of price gouging.

Runs on supermarkets, price gouging, canceled meetings and events — it seems like every day brings something new for consumers to worry about.
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Assemblyman Marc Levine (D–San Rafael) said there have been suspicions for years about gas-price manipulation in the industry, and noted that he is glad that an initial lawsuit has been filed regarding a practice that is “a real threat to every Californian’s pocketbook.”

The investigation that led to the lawsuit started before Becerra was asked by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October to investigate whether California’s leading oil and gas suppliers are involved in price-fixing or other unfair practices amid complaints from motorists that prices could be 30 cents a gallon higher here than in other states.

“There is no identifiable evidence to justify these premium prices,” Newsom wrote in a letter to Becerra seeking the broader probe.

The governor’s concerns grew when the California Energy Commission issued a report in April 2019 that found drivers here collectively spent $1.5 billion more than those in other states, even though the panel could not determine a difference in the gasoline being sold by different retailers.

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“The name-brand stations, therefore, are charging higher prices for what appears to be the same product,” the commission report said. “The CEC received no response from the name-brand retailers in response to a request for information to support their product claims.”

In a separate examination, the commission concluded that “market manipulation” may be one factor in why the state’s gas prices are so high.

“Consumers may be purchasing higher-priced gasoline brands for convenience, credit card acceptance, or other reasons,” researchers wrote. “However, if competitors decide collectively to fix prices, this may be unlawful.”

The oil industry disputed that anything improper was happening, saying that causes for the state’s gas prices include market forces, the state’s environmental rules, such as a requirement for special blends of gas, as well as the state’s decision in 2017 to raise the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon to pay for road repairs.


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