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WASHINGTON--Worried about the political pressure from high gasoline prices, the House is preparing to vote on a bill that would impose criminal and civil penalties on any energy company caught price gouging, reported the Associated Press.
The legislation, offered by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., calls for penalties of up to $150 million for refiners and other wholesalers and $2 million for retailers, according to AP.
House leaders said in the report a vote was expected as early as Tuesday afternoon.
A separate bill would streamline the permitting process for refinery expansion or construction of a new refinery.
With gasoline topping $3 a gallon across much of the country, lawmakers have been scrambling to put together legislation aimed at soothing public anger, hoping to demonstrate that Congress was doing something about high energy costs, according to AP.
Rex W. Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., defended the company's record profits and high gas prices in an interview on NBC's "Today" show Wednesday.
"Obviously, the truth is we do not get together and manipulate prices, that would be illegal," he said, adding that there have been several past investigations of price collusion in the oil industry and none of them have found any evidence of collusion.
"The profit we earn is what the market gives us ... the price is set on the open market."
The run-up of gasoline costs follows a winter of record heating bills because of high natural gas and fuel oil costs.
The House action "will send a strong signal to those who would gouge consumers that we expected them to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told AP.
Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, chided Republicans for now pushing a proposal that Democrats tried to get through last fall after the run-up of gasoline prices in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, reported AP.
About half of the states have some price gouging statutes, but enforcement and penalties vary widely. There is no federal law prohibiting price gouging nor agreement among the states on what constitutes price gouging.
The House bill requires the Federal Trade Commission to establish a definition of price gouging and imposes stiff civil and criminal penalties for violators who market gasoline, diesel fuel, crude oil and heating fuel, reported AP.
Violations involving wholesale transactions face a possible civil fine three times their ill-gotten gains plus up to $3 million a day if violations continue.
Price gouging by retail outlets such a corner gas stations and service station chains face penalties triple their unfair profit and up to $2 million in criminal fines. Violators also could go to jail.