22 Oct 2002

EU raids Bayer and Exxon Mobil offices

European Commission investigating chemical firms on suspicion of price fixing.

The European Commission raided the European offices of several chemical companies, including Exxon Mobil, in the past few weeks as part of an investigation into possible price fixing of bitumen, a chemical produced by oil refineries, officials said Thursday.

U.S. oil company Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch/Shell said they were among several firms involved in inspections into bitumen, which is used to produce asphalt. Bayer AG, the German chemical maker, said European Commission officials had searched its offices in connection with rubber chemicals production.

The Commission declined to name the firms raided, saying it is obliged to keep antitrust investigations confidential. Surprise inspections are the first step in suspected cartel probes.

"The inspections follow suspicions of one or more cartels in the bitumen sector in the Dutch, Belgium/Luxembourg and Spanish markets," the Commission said, adding that it had also carried out raids in Portugal and Germany. Commission spokeswoman Amelia Torres said the European Union executive arm's enquiries still are at a preliminary stage.

"We understand that several other companies were also visited in the framework of this asphalt investigation," Exxon Mobil said. But it denied a newspaper report that linked it with the other probe into rubber chemicals.

The European Commission said its rubber chemicals raids were conducted Sept. 26 to "ascertain whether there is evidence of a cartel agreement and related illegal practices concerning price fixing for rubber chemicals."

Bayer said EU officials had searched its headquarters in Leverkusen, Germany, and U.S. officials also launched an investigation into the alleged cartel.

Crompton Corp of the U.S. said Tuesday that it was the subject of investigations by authorities in the United States and the European Union regarding allegations of collusive dealings in the rubber chemicals industry.

According to EU rules, there are no deadlines for the completion of cartel probes. Their duration depends on the complexity of the case.