Antitrust legislation that would give the Department of Justice new tools to go after the countries that make up the OPEC oil cartel is receiving fresh attention from a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the face of soaring prices at the pump.
The No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act, or NOPEC, would allow the Justice Department to go after OPEC members with antitrust lawsuits. It recently advanced with bipartisan support in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Democrats and Republicans in both chambers are lobbying their leaderships to back the proposal and hold floor votes.
But the energy industry and presidential administrations going back to Republican George W. Bush have opposed such an idea over fears it could spark retaliation, and take away power from the executive branch by limiting its diplomatic tools for engaging with foreign countries on a range of issues.
The White House has expressed concerns about unintended consequences of the proposal. But it remains unclear whether President Biden would sign such legislation if it reaches his desk.
The new push for NOPEC, which lawmakers have sought to pass for roughly 20 years, comes ahead of Mr. Biden’s planned trip to Saudi Arabia next month. He is expected to lobby the OPEC leader to increase oil output, which could ease high prices.
Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence under President Barack Obama, disagreed with the notion that NOPEC would hamstring presidents and argued the legislation would give the executive branch more authority by offering the Justice Department additional powers to crack down on other countries.
“The United States needs sticks as well as carrots to deal with Saudi Arabia. President Biden needs to have it in his quiver as he heads off to Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Blair told reporters on a call. “I think [the Biden administration] is being silly not to embrace it and should have embraced it long ago.”
Opponents also have concerns that the legislation could spur retaliation from OPEC and cause prices to further spike. The United Arab Emirates’ energy minister has warned that passing it would create a “chaotic market” and inflate prices by as much as 300%.
The Senate and House passed their own versions of NOPEC under Mr. Bush, but Congress failed to get it across the finish line under threat of a presidential veto. Since then, lawmakers have tried — unsuccessfully — for Congress to pass it and for administrations to warm to the idea.
Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican, also blamed a powerful and influential group for defeating NOPEC over the past two decades: Big Oil.
“The oil companies don’t like it. And they successfully lobby members of Congress, particularly in some of our southern states,” Mr. Chabot told reporters. “Some of my colleagues that I agree with on a lot of issues, this one I disagree with them. I want to get gas prices down for the consumer and this seems like a logical way to do that.”
High gas prices paired with U.S. sentiment toward Saudi Arabia for the brutal murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi have created the optimal climate for resurrecting the decades-old effort, proponents argued.
“The fact of the matter is, this is a cartel, and the cartel has the ability to set production levels and set the price,” Rep. David Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat, told reporters. “The demand from the American people that we equip the government to do everything humanly possible to bring prices down is a very compelling motivation.”
The oil and natural gas industry has already begun lobbying Capitol Hill against the measure.
The American Petroleum Institute warned lawmakers in recent months that while NOPEC may be “well-intended,” it could result in a backlash on domestic producers and consumers.
“This legislation creates significant potential detrimental exposure to U.S. diplomatic, military and business interests while likely having limited impact on the market concerns driving the legislation,” API President and CEO Mike Sommers wrote in a recent letter.