Lawsuit alleges oil price manipulation

A European Union oil price-fixing investigation has prompted a Shreveport businessman to file a federal lawsuit in Baton Rouge against BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Statoil ASA.

The lawsuit seeking class-action status by David Harter claims the companies illegally manipulated the price of crude from at least 2002 to now, violating state and federal anti-trust laws.

In May, European Commission investigators raided the offices of BP, Shell, Statoil and Platts, which publishes benchmark oil prices.

The commission said it was concerned the oil firms manipulated oil and biofuel prices by giving false information to Platts. All of the companies have said they will cooperate with investigators.

“That’s like the FBI coming in and taking everything,” said Robert Fenet, Harter’s attorney.

The United Kingdom’s Serious Fraud Office has announced it is “urgently reviewing” the European Commission’s allegations and determining whether to launch a criminal investigation.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who heads the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has called for a U.S. Justice Department investigation.

Harter and members of his family have or now own oil-producing property in Louisiana, Texas and other states, according to the lawsuit. Harter and his relatives have been deprived of the true value of their production, oil royalties and working interest payments, the lawsuit said.

Harter is seeking an unspecified amount of damages, although the lawsuit said the amount for the entire class of plaintiffs is more than $5 million.

The lawsuit asks that class-action status be granted because Louisiana has so many landowners with oil production, working interests, royalty interests and oil leases holders.

Fenet said those damaged by the oil companies’ maneuvers include the state government, which is probably Louisiana’s largest leaseholder; local governments and school boards; and consumers.

BP spokesman Scott Dean said by email the company had no comment.

Kimberly Windon, a spokeswoman for Shell Oil Co., said in an email it is inappropriate for Shell to comment since the investigation and class-action lawsuits are in their earliest stages.

Statoil spokesman Morten Eek said the company has been notified of the lawsuit but could not comment on the particulars.

“It is not uncommon to see these types of U.S. private lawsuits filed following investigations by governmental agencies,” Eek said.

Fenet said it’s unclear whether the oil companies boosted their profits by artificially inflating prices or by keeping prices low and shorting oil futures. But investigators have seized lots of documents, Fenet said, and those records will yield the information needed to prove Harter and others were harmed.

What is clear is that oil is a multitrillion-dollar market, so manipulating the price by even a tiny, incremental amount would generate extraordinary sums of money, Fenet said.

“Figuring out the damages is going to be the job of a very smart person,” Fenet said.

Harter’s lawsuit asks that a federal judge prevent the oil companies and Platts from destroying any documents or records relating to setting the price of oil.

Fenet said there are more questions than answers, including: Who was profiting? Was it a small band of traders? Oil executives? Also, who knew what and when did they know it, he said.