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Biden orders FTC to investigate 'illegal' hiking of gas prices

'Uncover any wrongdoing,' president says, citing pain at the pump

 A gas pump is seen in a car at a Shell gas station in Washington, D.C. President Joe Biden said there was mounting evidence of anti-consumer behavior by oil and gas companies as gas prices stay high.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday said there was mounting evidence of anti-consumer behavior by oil and gas companies and asked the Federal Trade Commission to dig deeper into possible anti-competitive or "illegal conduct" in the market.

Biden in August asked the FTC to investigate possible illegal conduct causing the spike in gas prices, which are contributing to surging inflation, but told FTC Chair Lina Khan in a letter on Wednesday that further action was needed.

"The Federal Trade Commission has authority to consider whether illegal conduct is costing families at the pump. I believe you should do so immediately," he wrote.

Gas prices have continued to rise at the pump even though the price of unfinished gasoline had dropped over the last month, Biden said, noting that the two largest U.S. oil and gas companies were on track to nearly double their net income compared to 2019.

"I do not accept hard-working Americans paying more for gas because of anti-competitive or otherwise potentially illegal conduct," the president said in the letter to Khan.

"I therefore ask that the Commission further examine what is happening with oil and gas markets, and that you bring all of the Commission's tools to bear if you uncover any wrongdoing."

The FTC should use its authority to launch an "open study investigation" to obtain data on how companies set gas prices, and study actual pricing at the pumps, the White House said.

The average retail gas price per gallon in the United States was $3.413 as of Wednesday, from $3.319 a month ago, according to the American Automobile Association. The current futures price for unfinished gasoline known as RBOB is trading at $2.317 a gallon.

Retail gasoline prices vary state-by-state, with prices around $3 in Oklahoma and as high as $4.69 a gallon in California, due to state excise taxes and other factors. The federal gas tax is 18 cents per gallon.

The price of crude oil is the primary factor affecting gasoline prices, followed by local and state taxes, along with refining, transportation and distribution costs.

Biden said he appreciated that the FTC had directed Commission staff to strengthen oversight of mergers in the oil and gas sector that result in less consumer choices and potentially higher prices.

Reuters reported last month that U.S. antitrust regulators had extended the approval process for at least five oil and gas mergers and acquisitions in the last three months.

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