Gaz de France targeted in EU antitrust probe

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EU regulators launched a formal investigation against GDF on Thursday (22 May) just as Brussels and Paris are engaged in intense negotiations over the liberalisation of energy markets.

In a statement, the European Commission’s competition department said it suspects the state-owned gas company of abusing its dominant market position by restricting access to the downstream gas supply market in France.

The case, which is open-ended, was opened following inspections carried out in 2006 at GDF premises, the Commission indicated (EURACTIV 29/06/06).

Under particular scrutiny are “a combination of long-term reservation of transport capacity and a network of import agreements” that the Commission believes are stifling competition. 

EU regulators also suspect GDF of engaging in chronic “underinvestment in import infrastructure capacity” in order to keep a stronghold on its home market and prevent new competitors from entering.

The Commission’s investigation comes as a time when Paris and Brussels are engaged in an intense battle over energy liberalisation. France is resisting the EU executive’s proposal, presented in September last year, because it would force gas and electricity firms such as GDF to break-up their energy supply and transmission businesses, a process known as ‘ownership unbundling’.

The battle shifted to the gas sector earlier this week when the European Parliament’s Industry Committee (ITRE) examined a proposal for the gas sector on Monday (EURACTIV 20/05/08).

In a surprise move, MEPs rejected the Commission’s unbundling plans but showed more interest in a compromise text, tabled a few days earlier by the Commission, which sought to allay French and German concerns.

The debate will enter a decisive phase on 6 June when the energy ministers from the 27 EU member states will attempt to thrash out a “common approach” on the matter. France and Germany formed a blocking minority with six other countries and made clear they would not hesitate to sink the package altogether if they were not offered an alternative to unbundling.

Reacting to the Commission's announcement, Gaz de France denied any wrongdoing. In a statement, it said the fourty-four gas shippers currently operating in France enjoy access to its gas storage and pipeline facilities "under transparent and non-discriminatory conditions". 

Moreover, it added that should competitors worry about access conditions, they have the opportunity to lodge a complaint with French regulators. "At present, no complaint for anticompetitive conduct has been lodged," GDF underlined.

GDF also rejected claims of underinvestment, saying the company had invested a total of €1.5 billion to upgrade its infrastructure in 2007.

Meanwhile, Meglena Kuneva, the EU's consumer chief, admitted that the Commission's antitrust investigations in the energy sector were aimed at supporting its broader policy objectives in the field. "Consumer and competition policies [are] mutually reinforcing," Kuneva said in at an event organised by the Slovenian EU Presidency dedicated to energy consumer rights.

France, Germany and six other member states are leading the resistance to a Commission proposal to force more competition on EU energy markets by breaking up energy utilities. 

The process, known as 'ownership unbundling', would see companies such as GDF forced to split their gas supply and transmission businesses.

France is lobbying hard for an alternative to unbundling. Together with Germany, it tabled an alternative proposal called the 'Third Way', which they say would guarantee similar results but prevent energy firms from splitting their assets (EURACTIV 01/02/08).

  • 6 June: Energy Council to aim for political agreement on the liberalisation package.

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