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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 September 2006, 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK
EU fines cartel over bitumen fix
By Theo Leggett
Europe business reporter, BBC News

Shell logo
The EC said that Shell was the lead player in the bitumen cartel
The European Commission has fined some of the region's top oil firms including Shell and Total for their role in a cartel that fixed the price of bitumen.

In all the companies were fined $338m (180m; 266.7m euros), with Shell getting the largest penalty of $137m.

The fines were based on the size of the companies, the extent to which they were involved, and whether or not they had previously broken competition law.

UK oil firm BP informed officials of the cartel and cooperated in the probe.

'Repeat offender'

The Commission said that between 1996 and 2004, eight suppliers and six road builders worked together to control bitumen prices in the Netherlands.

Along with Shell, it implicated the international oil firms BP, Total and Kuwait Petroleum.

Total received a fine of $25.7m for its part in the affair. Kuwait Petroleum was told to pay $21m.

BP escaped without any fine at all because of its role as whistle-blower and help with the subsequent investigation.

But Shell was penalised very heavily.

"The fines for Shell were the highest because it was a repeat offender and because it played a leading role in the cartel," said the Commission's spokesman Jonathan Todd.

The fines were the seventh largest total penalty the regulator has ever imposed in a cartel case.

Shell has previously been fined by the Commission for price-fixing in the markets for PVC and propylene.

The company said it would examine the decision in detail before deciding whether or not to appeal.

New rules

The Commission also took a hard line towards the Dutch road building firm Koninklijke Volker Wessels Stevin.

It said the company had tried to impede its investigation by denying inspectors access to its premises and forcing the national police force to become involved.

The company was ordered to pay a fine of $34.6m.

The bitumen probe reflects the Commission's determination to clamp down on companies which break EU competition laws, especially those which do so repeatedly.

Earlier this year, it unveiled new guidelines designed to make the worst offenders pay much higher fines than they would have to in the past.

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