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Exxon Mobil Corp. told anti-trust regulators that Unocal Corp. applied for its anti-smog gasoline patents in secret while helping to shape rules requiring them at a third of the nation's pumps, according to documents obtained by Reuters on Tuesday.
The charge, which Unocal brought to light in a federal filing last week, has triggered a formal investigation of the California energy company's patents by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). If found in violation of federal competition regulations, Unocal risks losing as much as $150 million it hoped to reap annually from royalties and the roughly $100 million it has already raked in.
"Unocal subverted the standard-setting process to obtain unlawful monopoly profits," ExxonMobil said its complaint. "Undoing the effects of Unocal's improper conduct would include requiring it to disgorge any royalties that it has received as a result of the patents."
The move by ExxonMobil is the latest in a heated gasoline battle that has pitted some of the nation's most powerful energy companies against the smaller Unocal -- and analysts expect that a victory for Exxon could mean lower pump prices for consumers, the report said.
Unocal's five anti-smog fuel patents have been widely criticized as a reason for high retail gasoline prices in the United States during the past two years, particularly by oil firms that felt forced to reduce production or dodge royalty lawsuits.
Unocal, however, has been energetic in its own defense. "These are old allegations that have been reviewed and rejected by the courts," Unocal spokesman Barry Lane told Reuters. "We're going to cooperate with the FTC's investigation. We believe, when they're done, they will find we acted properly and lawfully."
Unocal has already been awarded $91 million in U.S. courts for infringements on its patents, and has since signed eight licensing agreements with refiners, worth between 1.2 and 3.4 cents a gallon, the report said.