The head of Bulgaria’s Commission for Protection of Competition (CPC), Yulia Nenkova, said on November 11 that the petrol retailers, which the regulator accused last month of forming a price-fixing cartel, have asked for additional time to present their objections to the ruling.
Speaking at an anti-trust forum in Sofia, Nenkova said that four of the six companies made a request to be given more time to respond, beyond the 30 days mandated by law.
Specifically, the companies asked to be access to privileged trade information uncovered by the CPC probe, which they currently have no access to. The regulator will have to rule within 30 days whether to make this information available, Nenkova said, as quoted by news website Mediapool.bg.
“In principle, we always make this information available, because it gives [the accused] the chance to defend themselves,” Nenkova said. This recent development, however, will delay the proceedings and a ruling from the regulator on any possible fines for the six companies will “not happen anytime soon”, she said.
Last month, the regulator said that following an eight-month investigation, it found that the six companies entered an “illegal agreement and/or concerted practice to exchange price information carry out a joint pricing policy and exchange information about sales volumes and other market information” that was meant to “prevent, restrict and breach competition on the petrol and diesel fuel retail market.”
The companies accused by the regulator were Shell Bulgaria (a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell), OMV Bulgaria (owned by Austria’s OMV), NIS Petrol (a unit of Naftna Industrija Srbije, which in turn is owned by Russia’s Gazprom Neft), Eco Bulgaria (owned by Greece’s Hellenic Petroleum), Lukoil Bulgaria (the local retail unit of Russian privately-owned oil company Lukoil) and local petrol distributor Petrol.
Initially, the probe targeted two other companies – Rompetrol Bulgaria (part of Romania’s Rompetrol Group, which is controlled by Kazakhstan’s state-owned oil and gas company KazMunayGas) and the Lukoil Neftochim refinery (owned by Russia’s Lukoil, it is the main supplier of Lukoil Bulgaria’s petrol station distribution network, but operates as a separate entity) – which were not mentioned in CPC’s cartel ruling.
NIS Petrol, Eco Bulgaria, Lukoil Bulgaria and Petrol were the four companies to submit requests for additional information with the CPC, Nenkova said.
This was the second CPC investigation in four years into possible price-fixing by fuel retailers. The earlier probe, which concluded in July 2012, found that Lukoil Bulgaria did not abuse its dominant position on the market. The watchdog also approved a proposal by the four companies investigated at that time – Lukoil Bulgaria, Rompetrol Bulgaria, Petrol and OMV Bulgaria – that would fix competition issues. It did not levy any fines.