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US House chairman calls for anti-OPEC bill to become law this year

Washington — The chairman of the US House Judiciary Committee Wednesday called on the Trump administration to back a bill that would allow the US Department of Justice to sue OPEC for antitrust violations.

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"The fact that OPEC is not being held accountable for its anti-competitive behavior makes a mockery of US antitrust law," Representative Bob Goodlatte, the committee's chairman and a Virginia Republican, said at a subcommittee hearing.

Goodlatte said that passage of the No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels or NOPEC Act, would be a "bipartisan victory before this term of Congress ends."

Democrats are set to take over the House when the next Congress begins on January 3.

At the hearing, Makan Delrahim, an assistant attorney general in DOJ's antitrust division, did not offer outright support for the bill, claiming that the administration was still studying it.

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Delrahim, however, criticized OPEC's impact on oil prices and said the bill would remove at least two hurdles to allow the US executive branch to bring an antitrust case against OPEC, including the act-of-state doctrine and the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

"Whenever you have a horizontal cartel, ultimately price is not determined by the free markets and consumers are harmed," Delrahim said.

In 2008, as an attorney in private practice, Delrahim wrote an op-ed in The Hill newspaper in support of NOPEC legislation. Before he was elected president, Donald Trump frequently spoke in support of NOPEC legislation, but has yet to comment on the legislation since moving into the White House.

A White House spokesman declined to comment on the bill Wednesday.

Versions of the NOPEC bill have been introduced in every Congress over the past 20 years, but several current factors, including last week's OPEC-led agreement to cut production by 1.2 million b/d, have fueled speculation that the Republican-controlled House and Senate may vote on it before the holiday recess, sources have told S&P Global Platts.

The bill, which would require passage in the House and Senate and Trump's signature to become law, would allow the US attorney general to sue a foreign crude producer for price manipulation under the Sherman Antitrust Act.

OPEC officials have grown increasingly uneasy about the prospects of NOPEC passage and, earlier this year, began devising a legal strategy to counter the legislation, sources said.

Sources speculated that Qatar's surprising decision to withdraw from OPEC may have been partly motivated by concern over legal risk if the NOPEC legislation was signed into law. Qatar Petroleum is the majority owner of the Golden Pass LNG terminal in Texas.

Representative Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican, introduced the House-version of the NOPEC bill, H.R. 5904, in May. It was approved by the House Judiciary Committee by voice vote in June. Grassley introduced the Senate-version of the NOPEC bill, S. 3214, in July. It has yet to be voted on by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

-- Brian Scheid, brian.scheid@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Richard Rubin, newsdesk@spglobal.com