Senate allows U.S. to sue OPEC for oil price-fixing

By Chris Baltimore Tue Jun 21, 7:23 PM ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate voted on Tuesday to allow the U.S. government to sue the OPEC oil cartel on antitrust grounds in an outcry against crude oil prices that are fast approaching the $60 a barrel mark.

The measure, added to wide-sweeping energy legislation by a voice vote, would give authority to the Department of Justice or Federal Trade Commission to sue the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

U.S. crude oil futures hit a record $59.70 per barrel on Tuesday, even after OPEC boosted its production to nearly 25-year highs and U.S. crude inventories swelled to their highest level since July 1999.

OPEC's 11 members account for almost 40 percent of global crude oil production and two-thirds of proven reserves.

"Gas and oil prices are too high and it's time that we do something about it," said Republican Sen. Mike DeWine (news, bio, voting record) of Ohio, who sponsored the amendment along with Democrat Herb Kohl of Wisconsin.

"If OPEC were a group of international private companies rather than foreign governments, their action would be nothing more than an illegal price-fixing scheme," Kohl said.

Republican Sen. Pete Domenici (news, bio, voting record), the Senate's top energy bill negotiator, called the measure "nothing short of incredible," but did not act to block it.

"These are sovereign nations," Domenici said. "For us to decide here on the Senate floor that we're going to establish some new forum and litigation against the OPEC cartel is nothing short of incredible."

The measure is unlikely to survive a negotiating session when the Senate's energy legislation is reconciled with a version passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in April, Domenici said. The House energy bill contains no similar provision.