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Financial Times: Groups fined over bitumen cartel: Shell received by far the biggest fine, €108m

By Tobias Buck in Brussels

Published: September 14 2006 03:00 | Last updated: September 14 2006 03:00

Shell, Total and 11 other companies were yesterday fined a total of €267m ($339m) after the European Commission found they had fixed prices in the Dutch market for road bitumen.

A cartel brought together eight suppliers and five buyers of bitumen, a substance used to make asphalt for road surfaces.

In a series of meetings between 1994 and 2002, the cartel’s members agreed prices and rebates aimed at freezing out smaller construction groups that were not part of the agreement.

The bitumen suppliers involved in the cartel were BP, Shell, Total, Wintershall, Esha, Klöckner Bitumen, Kuwait Petroleum and Nynäs.

The buyers were Ballast Nedam, Dura Vermeer, Heijmans, Koninklijke BAM Groep and Koninklijke Volker Wessels Stevin (KWS).

BP was not fined as it blew the whistle on the cartel and was granted immunity from punishment.

Shell received by far the biggest fine, €108m, followed by KWS with €27m and Total with €20m.

Shell’s fine was substantially increased because of the group’s previous convictions in cartel cases and its “leading role” in the arrangement.

KWS was also punished more severely than others because of its elevated role in the cartel and because it obstructed the investigation. The group twice refused to allow Commission inspectors to enter its premises during raids, forcing the watchdog to ask for police help.

The regulator acknowledged that the fines were high compared to earlier cases, especially given that the Dutch bitumen market is worth only €62m a year, or less than a quarter of the total fine imposed yesterday.

However, the punishment was in line with a trend that has seen the Commission ramp up financial penalties on companies that engage in competition abuses.

Chemical groups have been especially hard hit because so many of them carry previous convictions for similar cartel abuses.

Shell said it regretted its participation in the illegal activity and would study the Commission’s decision before reacting.

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