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Obama announces taskforce to probe oil and gas price manipulation

President Barack Obama said yesterday that a new US taskforce will investigate fraud in the oil and gas markets as soaring prices prompt accusations of profiteering and manipulation.

"We are going to make sure that no one is taking advantage of the American people for their own short-term gain," Obama said at a town-hall style meeting at a renewable energy plant in Reno, Nevada.

With the 2012 campaign in mind, the White House is anxious to show the public it's taking action to address rising prices. Obama, decrying increased prices as yet another hardship "at a time when things were already pretty tough," said the US attorney general, Eric Holder, was forming the Financial Fraud Enforcement Working Group.

The task force will focus some of its investigation on "the role of traders and speculators" in the oil-price surge, Obama said, and will include several Cabinet department officials, federal regulators and the National Association of Attorneys General.

In Washington, Holder said he would press ahead with the investigation, even though he did not cite any current evidence of intentional manipulation of oil and gas prices or fraud.

"Based upon our work and research to date, it is evident that there are regional differences in gasoline prices, as well as differences in the statutory and other legal tools at the government's disposal," Holder said in a memo accompanying a statement announcing the task force. "It is also clear that there are lawful reasons for increases in gas prices, given supply and demand."

"Nonetheless, where consumers are harmed by unlawful conduct that has the effect of increasing gas prices, state and federal authorities will take swift action," Holder said.

He promised to "be vigilant in monitoring the oil and gas markets for any wrongdoing so that consumers can be confident they are not paying higher prices as a result of illegal activity."

Other presidents have also launched similar inquiries at times of rising oil prices and widespread public suspicions of market manipulation by the oil industry or by speculators.

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