The year is 1979. Inflation and lines at the gas pumps caused by a revolution in Iran have stunned Americans. Driven to action, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) files suit in the Central District of California against OPEC and its 14 member countries for participating in a cartel that controls the worldwide price of oil. None of the defendants made any kind of appearance before the court. Nonetheless, the union lost, and its case was dismissed.
Under the Constitution, federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. A district court has no power to decide a case over which it has no subject matter jurisdiction. The requirement cannot be waived or avoided; a court that lacks subject matter jurisdiction has no legal authority to entertain the matter. A federal statute known as the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act of 1976 (FSIA) limits the court’s jurisdiction in cases involving foreign sovereigns and, subject to a few specific exceptions, grants foreign states immunity from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. The court in IAM v. OPEC raised the FSIA on its own (there being no defendants present) and, finding the OPEC states immune (OPEC itself could not be served), dismissed the case. Thusly did the IAM lose its antitrust case against defendants who never even showed up in court.
See related story: German Economist Sues OPEC as Illegal Cartel
Prior Attempts to Hold OPEC Accountable for Antitrust Violations
The judiciary has resisted the innumerable attempts since 1979 to hold the OPEC cartel accountable for violating U.S. antitrust laws, even though the court’s IAM decision has proven erroneous. Acts by a sovereign “based upon a commercial activity” in the U.S., or affecting U.S. commerce, do not enjoy immunity under FSIA. Although the district court in IAM didn’t think so, the Ninth Circuit on appeal made clear that pricing of oil on world markets is indeed commercial activity that affects the U.S. economy and, therefore, not entitled to sovereign immunity. But the Appeals Court nonetheless sidestepped the case, taking refuge in the judge-made Act-of-State doctrine.
The doctrine is prudential, as opposed to jurisdictional, and amounts to a voluntary renunciation of jurisdiction by a court when its decision could interfere with the conduct of foreign policy by the executive branch. Indeed, it is easy to see how a suit against the members of OPEC for price fixing might intrude into a sensitive foreign policy area.
In the four decades since IAM, these considerations have obstructed U.S. courts from holding OPEC accountable for a cartel formed for the purpose of and with the effect of stabilizing the price of a commodity in interstate or foreign commerce, which is illegal per se. As recently as 2010, the Obama administration urged the Fifth Circuit to dismiss an antitrust suit brought by private plaintiffs on Act-of-State grounds, it being up to the executive branch and not the courts to conduct foreign policy and protect national security interests.
Since 2000, when the first No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels (NOPEC) Act was introduced in the House, the same legislation has been introduced no less than four times. NOPEC came closest to passage in 2007, when different versions of the bill passed the House and the Senate but were not reconciled. The House and Senate judiciary committees have now both approved the bill, and the latest version is on the Senate’s legislative calendar. Congress could act quickly if there is bipartisan support, otherwise it will take several months and require reintroduction in 2023.
NOPEC consists of three operative parts:
- First, it would amend the Sherman Antitrust Act by adding a new Section 7(a) that explicitly makes it illegal for any foreign state to act collectively with others to limit production, fix prices, or otherwise restrain trade with respect to oil, natural gas, or other petroleum products. Judicial enforcement and a remedy would be available only to the Department of Justice, so the bill does not create a private right of action.
- Second, it would amend FSIA to explicitly grant jurisdiction to U.S. court against foreign sovereigns to the extent they are engaged in a violation of the new Section 7(a).
- Third, the legislation clarifies that the Act-of-State doctrine does not prevent U.S. courts from deciding antitrust cases against sovereigns alleged to have violated the new Section 7(a).
Calls for taking a harder line against OPEC are growing stronger in light of recent actions taken by the cartel. In May, for example, Saudi Arabia and 10 other OPEC members voted to slash oil production – resulting in high gas prices – as the U.S. and other nations imposed embargoes on Russian oil. OPEC’s production cuts provided Russia with a substantial lifeline in its increasingly difficult, costly, and prolonged invasion of Ukraine.
The Senate bill is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley and cosponsors Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) Mike Lee (R-UT), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who argue that OPEC’s price-fixing goes directly against the idea of fair and open markets, with current laws leaving the U.S. government “powerless” over OPEC. But are we really ready for NOPEC?
The concern over interference with foreign policy is far from trivial.
The American Petroleum Institute (API) recently sent a letter to Congress opposing the NOPEC bill, stating it would harm U.S. military, diplomatic, and business relations. API President and CEO Mike Sommers warned that while NOPEC is a noble endeavor designed to protect consumers, it would open the U.S. up to reciprocal lawsuits by foreign entities, writing that this could devastate certain political relations and trigger retaliation from OPEC countries.
Other NOPEC critics say OPEC countries may limit other business dealings with the U.S., including lucrative arms deals or by pulling in their investments, as Saudi Arabia threatened to do in 2007, when the Deputy Saudi Oil Minister said the country would pull out of a multi-billion Texas oil refinery project unless the DOJ filed a statement of interest urging dismissal of an antitrust case then pending in the U.S. courts. In 2019, Saudi Arabia and OPEC threatened to start selling their oil in currencies other than the dollar, which would weaken the dollar’s position as the global vehicle currency.
For these reasons, it's not clear what the White House would do if NOPEC passes. The Biden administration’s view of the measure seems to have shifted a bit, but it hasn’t come out strongly one way or the other. This is hardly surprising given the delicate and complex nature of the issue, the ongoing impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine, and the great importance voters place on the price of gas.
Then-Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on May 5, 2022, that the “potential implications and unintended consequences of this legislation require further study and deliberation.” More recently, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Brian Deese, President Biden’s Director of the National Economic Council, said that nothing is off of the table – that the administration is assessing the situation and inviting recommendations.
On Oct. 5 the Department of Energy said it would release another 10 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. In making that announcement, Sullivan and Deese said the administration will consult with Congress on “additional tools and authorities to reduce OPEC’s control over energy prices.” They also reiterated the importance of investing in clean American-made energy to reduce reliance on foreign fossil fuels.
OPEC has such tremendous sway over U.S. gas prices and national security it is no wonder Congress continues to try to do something to free U.S. from OPEC’s whims and hold it accountable for going against the ideals of free markets. But whether NOPEC is the right approach remains an open question.
The antitrust laws represent a national ideological perspective on the most beneficial way to organize an economy. Policy differences between nations are supposed to occur in the diplomatic arena, not in the courts of one country or another. And if OPEC or its members lose an antitrust case in a U.S. court, how will the court enforce its judgment?