Natural Gas Price-Fixing Case Still Simmering

     LAS VEGAS (CN) — More than a decade into litigation, discovery arguments continue to dominate a federal antitrust class action that accuses major gas wholesalers of conspiring to inflate natural gas prices.
     Parties in the Western States Wholesale Natural Gas Antitrust litigation convened in Federal Court Thursday to argue several motions to compel more detailed responses to interrogatories now that discovery is closed.
     U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen presided over the nearly two-hour status hearing, which was scheduled after the Ninth Circuit reversed a ruling in the wholesalers’ favor and remanded to the district court in April 2013.
     The Ninth Circuit panel ruled that the federal Natural Gas Act does not preempt state-law antitrust claims, and that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission does not have jurisdiction over price-fixing and other anticompetitive claims.
     The plaintiff class includes dozens of retail buyers of natural gas who say the defendants conspired to manipulate wholesale natural gas prices from 2000 to 2002. During that time, the nation experienced an energy crisis exemplified by the Enron natural gas scandal of 2001.
     Defendants include Oneok, The Williams Companies, American Electric Power Co., Duke Energy, Dynegy Marketing and Trade, El Paso Corp., Reliant Energy, and those companies’ affiliates, and others.
     A 189-page FERC Report on Price Manipulation in Western Markets published in March 2003 indicates that more than 85 percent of wholesale natural gas reports from natural gas wholesalers during the period were false.
     Plaintiffs accuse the wholesalers of manipulating natural gas prices via wash trades, churning, conspiring to report false information to trade press, and concealing the conspiracy.
     Wash trades involve buying shares through one broker and reselling them via another to manipulate markets by generating higher trade volumes and encourage investors to buy.
     Churning involves excessive trades to generate broker commissions.
     With the case back in Nevada Federal Court after the Ninth Circuit’s 2013 remand, the parties are looking to decide nine remaining actions. They are:
     Breckenridge Brewery of Colorado, et al., vs. Oneok in the District of Colorado;
     Reorganized FLI vs. Williams Companies, et al.;
     Learjet, et al., vs. Oneok, et al., in the District of Kansas.
     Arandell, et al., vs. CMS Energy, et al., in the Eastern District of Michigan;
     Heartland Regional Medical Center, et al., vs. Oneok, et al., in the Western District of Missouri;
     Sinclair Oil vs. E Prime, et al., in the Northern District of Oklahoma;
     Sinclair Oil vs. Oneok Energy Services in the District of Wyoming;
     Arandell, et al., vs. Xcel Energy, et al., in the Western District of Wisconsin;
     And Newpage Wisconsin System vs. CMS Energy Resource Management, et al., in the Western District of Wisconsin.
     The parties filed a joint status report in April.

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