* Source says Dutch trader Argos Energies being investigated
* Sen. Wyden calls for Justice Dept to look at US price
* Finnish refiner Neste Oil says asked for information
* Oil market liquidity not affected -Platts
By Simon Falush and Timothy Gardner
LONDON/WASHINGTON, May 17 A European probe into
possible oil price manipulation expanded with the investigation
of a small niche trading house in the Netherlands, while a key
U.S. senator on Friday called for the Justice Department to join
Dutch trading house Argos Energies, a mid-sized trading
company that deals in physical oil products and owns storage
facilities, was visited by inspectors from the European
Commission on Tuesday, a source familiar with the investigation
said on Friday.
The visit occurred on the same day that authorities raided
the London bureau of pricing agency Platts, and the offices of
Statoil, Royal Dutch Shell and BP in
the biggest cross-border action since the probe into rigging of
Libor benchmark interest rates.
In Washington, the chairman of the Senate's energy committee
asked the Justice Department to investigate whether alleged
price manipulation has boosted fuel prices for U.S. consumers.
"Efforts to manipulate the European oil indices, if proven,
may have already impacted U.S. consumers and businesses, because
of the interrelationships among world oil markets and hedging
practices," Senator Ron Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Energy
and Natural Resources Committee, wrote in a letter to Attorney
General Eric Holder.
The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission and Federal
Trade Commission have both declined to comment on any role or
coordination with EU authorities in the probe. U.S. politicians
including Wyden often call for enquiries into issues that affect
gasoline prices, although regulators are not obligated to take
A spokesman for the Justice Department would not comment on
whether the agency would undertake a probe, but said it was
reviewing Wyden's letter.
Authorities have sharpened scrutiny of financial benchmarks
around the world since slapping large fines on some of the
world's biggest banks for rigging interest rate benchmarks.
Over the past year many observers have noted the resemblance
between the Libor self-reported benchmark and the journalist
assessment-based methodology used to set most of the world's oil
prices, but this week's investigation is the first indication
that EU authorities are taking a harder look at the system.
The source said that inspectors were still on the premises
of Argos Energies on Friday and that it was also the last day of
the inspection at the company.
Argos Energies declined to comment.
NO IMPACT ON LIQUIDITY
Platts said trading in the oil market has not been
significantly affected by the investigation.
"Market participation and liquidity are unchanged," Platts
editorial director Dan Tanz said.
Meanwhile Neste Oil, a Finnish refinery, said it
had received a request from the European Commission to provide
information, although it said it was not under inspection.
"We will naturally cooperate with this request and provide
the information requested to assist the European Commission in
its investigation," Matti Lehmus, executive vice president, Oil
Products and Renewables said in a statement.
Hungary's Pannonia Ethanol, a recent entrant to Europe's
market, was the first company to identify itself as having
complained to Brussels over access to the Platts market-on-close
(MOC) system - a daily half-hour "window" of trading during
which the agency determines prices through a series of bids,
offers and trades.
European oil major Total, which last year wrote to
regulators to question the way oil prices were determined, said
it was not involved with the current investigation and has not
"No, we haven't sent any letter," Chief Executive Christophe
de Margerie told reporters on the sidelines of the group's
annual meeting, when asked whether it had complained to the EU.
"I've learnt about this through the press and news agencies.
I'd be very surprised if some of the cited companies were
involved in price manipulation."
The investigation is focused on whether there was collusion
to distort prices of crude, refined oil products and ethanol
traded during the MOC window.
Platts, a unit of McGraw-Hill, provides clients
with price benchmarks set by reporters for opaque energy
Its assessments are used to close physical and derivative
deals worth billions in a $2.5 trillion market.
Thomson Reuters, parent of Reuters news, competes
with Platts in providing news and information to the oil market.