CAMPAIGNERS FairFuelUK today demanded an independent watchdog to ensure no market manipulation of oil prices after BP and Shell were among firms raided over alleged price fixing, which could have short changed motorists by thousands of pounds.
A European Commission investigation into the alleged practice of artificially keeping prices high over the last decade also covers other oil-related companies including price reporting agency Platts, and Statoil in Norway.
The commission said even small distortions of assessed prices could have a “huge impact on the prices of crude oil, refined oil products and biofuels purchases and sales, potentially harming final consumers”.
It said officials had carried out “unannounced inspections” yesterday of several companies “active in and providing services to the crude oil, refined oil products and biofuels sectors”.
A spokesman said: “The commission has concerns that the companies may have colluded in reporting distorted prices to a price reporting agency to manipulate the published prices for a number of oil and biofuel products.
“Furthermore, the commission has concerns that the companies may have prevented others from participating in the price assessment process, with a view to distorting published prices.
“Any such behaviour, if established, may amount to violations of European anti-trust rules that prohibit cartels and restrictive business practices and abuses of a dominant market position.”
FairFuelUK said there was an urgent need for a watchdog.
Spokesman Quentin Willson said: “The sharp rises in fuel and oil prices we’ve seen recently have raised huge concerns about what is really driving them.
“The oil market isn’t transparent or accountable enough. There is an urgent need for a powerful and independent watchdog to ensure that there’s no market manipulation and that UK families and businesses pay a fair price for their fuel.”
The Liberal Democrats described the investigation as very worrying.
West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine MP Sir Robert Smith, who is a member of the Commons’ energy and climate change select committee, said: “Allegations that firms have profiteered at the expense of motorists are deeply concerning.
“It is clear there are big questions to answer and the investigations need to get to the bottom of any potential price rigging as swiftly and as efficiently as possible.”
Harlow Tory MP Robert Halfon, who has led a campaign for an investigation into alleged cartels and market manipulation for three years, said: “These latest allegations underline why that must happen urgently in the UK.
“High oil prices are crushing families across Britain. Motorists are being taken for a very expensive ride.
“The [UK] Government has done its bit, by freezing fuel duty for three years. Now oil companies must come clean and show some responsibility for what is happening to the international oil price.”
The Petrol Retailers’ Association (PRA), which represents independent filling stations, said it had submitted a complaint on oil price fixing to the Office of Fair Trading in January last year.
Chairman Brian Madderson said: “The UK’s competition authority rejected industry calls from the PRA, supported by Robert Halfon MP and his cross-party group of backbenchers, to examine oil price and wholesale cost movements.
“Earlier this year, the PRA drew attention to the 8p per litre increase in the wholesale cost of petrol from the end of December to late February, which could not be explained by new geo-political issues or other economic factors.
“More recently, our independent petrol retailers have seen wholesale costs move by over 5.2p per litre in less than seven days. Such volatility has been a relatively new and unwelcome market phenomenon which cannot be explained to confused and irate customers on our forecourts.
Shell confirmed that its offices in London and Rotterdam were inspected yesterday.
A spokesman said: “We can confirm that Shell companies are currently assisting the European Commission in an inquiry into trading activities. We are fully co-operating with the investigation.”
A BP spokesman said : “BP is one of the companies that is subject to an investigation. We are co-operating fully with the investigation.”
The European Commission said unannounced inspections were a preliminary step to investigating suspected anti-competitive practices and do not mean that the companies are guilty of any wrongdoing.