FTC preparing subpoenas for oil, refinery companies over high gas prices

Subpoenas to oil companies and refiners are being prepared by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission as it probes rising gasoline prices, a person familiar with the matter said.

The FTC called oil companies and refiners in the past three to four weeks to alert them to stand by for the subpoenas, said the person, who declined to be identified because the calls were confidential.

President Barack Obama announced in April an interagency task force to investigate potential fraud in oil markets as a possible cause for the run-up in fuel costs. Five Democratic senators sent a letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz on May 17 asking the agency to look into gasoline-price increases, saying reports at the time indicated U.S. refiners were restricting production to boost prices.

The FTC will “take action whenever we find wrongdoing,” Leibowitz said at the time. FTC spokesman Mitch Katz declined to comment yesterday on whether the agency is preparing subpoenas.

The average price for a gallon of regular gasoline is $3.69 compared with $2.74 a year ago, according to AAA’s daily fuel report.

Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM), the world’s biggest gasoline producer, hasn’t been notified it will receive a subpoena by the FTC, said Alan Jeffers, a spokesman for the Irving, Texas-based company, in an e-mailed message. John Roper, a spokesman for Houston- based ConocoPhillips (COP), said in an e-mail that “as a matter of policy, ConocoPhillips won’t comment on rumors or speculation.”

Valero, Marathon

Bill Day, a spokesman for San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corp (VLO), the largest independent U.S. crude refiner, said he was unaware of any contact the FTC has had with the company about a potential investigation. He said Valero wouldn’t comment unless a subpoena had actually been issued.

Marathon Petroleum Corp. hasn’t received “any request or subpoena,” said Angelia Graves, a spokeswoman for the Findlay, Ohio-based refiner. She wouldn’t comment on whether the company had been notified of an investigation.

Lloyd Avram, a spokesman for San Ramon, California-based Chevron Corp. (CVX), declined to comment on whether the second-largest U.S. oil company had been contacted by the FTC.

The FTC’s Bureau of Economics regularly scrutinizes price movements in about 20 wholesale regions and almost 400 retail points across the country, according to the agency’s website. FTC attorneys and economists respond to suspect pricing episodes as they arise, the agency says.