As Gas Prices Surge, Biden Asks F.T.C. to Investigate

WASHINGTON — President Biden asked the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday to consider whether the “unlawful behavior” of large oil and gas companies is raising gasoline prices for American consumers, the latest effort by the administration to target focus in the energy industry in an attempt to bring prices down at the pump.

The move is unlikely to spur immediate action by the Federal Trade Commission, which has the power to break up big players in the industry, and is unlikely to materially affect gasoline prices anytime soon.

But it could prompt the commission to open an investigation to collect data on how companies set gasoline prices, which could be used in future enforcement actions.

Mr. Biden’s letter to Lina Khan, the antitrust heroine he appointed as the commission’s chair, claims “growing evidence of anti-consumer behavior by oil and gas companies.” The president noted that prices at the pump have gone up even as refined fuel costs drop and industry profits rise. He wrote that the industry’s two largest companies, ExxonMobil and Chevron, have doubled their net income since 2019, while announcing multibillion-dollar plans to issue dividends and share buybacks.

A gallon of gas averaged nearly $3.40 in the United States on Monday, according to the Energy Information Agency, its highest price in seven years.

White House officials estimate that if the gap between costs for refined fuel and gasoline prices at the pump returns to normal levels, drivers will pay up to 25 cents less per gallon.

Earlier this year, Mr. Biden asked the commission to monitor the gasoline market for any illegal behavior. The committee responded by increasing scrutiny of mergers in the oil and gas industry.

Soaring gas prices, spurred by OPEC’s throttling of production and renewed leadership as commuters and travelers return from a pandemic hiatus, have undermined Americans’ views of the economy and helped fuel accelerating inflation that has endangered part of Biden’s economic agenda in Congress.

Biden’s increase has stuck between his goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change and keeping costs low for middle-class consumers. Although economists agree that higher gas prices discourage the use of gasoline, Mr. Biden refused to include an increase in the federal gasoline tax as compensation for spending in infrastructure negotiations with Republicans.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Biden will fly to Detroit to visit a General Motors worker that makes electric cars, highlighting the shift to low-emissions cars and trucks that the president hopes to speed up the infrastructure law’s new $1.1 trillion site.

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