Shell, Texaco JVs Get Reprieve

Supreme Court says oil companies not liable for Equilon, Motiva price fixing

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Shell Oil Co. and Texaco Inc. cannot be held liable under the antitrust law for their now-defunct joint ventures that had been approved by the federal government and that set the selling price for gasoline, reported Reuters. The justices unanimously overturned a U.S. appeals court ruling that the antitrust law's automatic prohibition against price fixing applied to the economic arrangements of Equilon Enterprises and Motiva Enterprises.

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought by 23,000 gas [image-nocss] station owners in who said the two companies conspired to fix prices for their gasoline brands through the joint ventures.

The joint ventures took over the gasoline wholesaling and retaining operations of the two companies, set up in 1998 and discontinued in 2001. Equilon operated in the western United States while Motiva covered the eastern United States.

Texaco left the joint venture when it merged with Chevron Corp. in 2001 to form ChevronTexaco Corp., now called Chevron Corp. Shell Oil is a unit of Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Cos.

A federal judge in Los Angeles dismissed the lawsuit, but the appeals court ruled it could go forward. It ruled the companies could be held liable because the joint ventures priced Texaco and Shell gasoline the same.

The companies said the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) approved the joint ventures and that they cannot be held liable. The U.S. Justice Department supported them. The Supreme Court ruled for the two oil companies.

Justice Clarence Thomas concluded in the seven-page opinion that it is not automatically illegal under the antitrust law for a lawful, economically integrated joint venture to set the prices at which the joint venture sells its products. He said Equilon's pricing policy may be price fixing in a literal sense, but it is not price fixing in the antitrust sense.