The Justice Department is in the process of develoving an energy antitrust policy, Attorney General Griffin B. Bell told the Senate Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee yesterday.
Responding to questions about priorities from subcommittee chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Bell admitted thre was "very little antitrust activity" in energy now but hinted that the situation would change with the evolution of the new policy.
The policy will include the department's views on oil company ownership of alternatve energy sources, such as coal, and on interlocking directorships of banks through which oil companies may be connected.
Bell said the new policy would be coordinated with James R. Scholesinger, the President's energy advisor.
Bell said he did not have a general position yet on the question of divestiture in the oil industry. But he agreed there was "merit" in seeking a court test of whether integrated oil companies should be allowed to operate pipelines.
Last week, Donald I. Baker, who was then assistant attorney general for antitrust, said the division had become convinced that the integrated companies' ownership of pipelines allowed them to evade rate regulation by the Interstate Commerce Commission and to capture "monopoly profits"
In a fashion, Bell endorsed legislation sponsored by Kennedy to create an assistant secretary of competition in the proposed new energy department. "It's not a bad idea," Bell said.
In other testimony Ralph Nader criticized the antitrust division for a "truly dismal record" in the energy sector. He urged that "at the minimum" an energy task force should be formed to monitor the activities of the energy companies.
He also called on President Carter to fulfill a campaign pledge to work for legislation barring acquisitions of one energy company by another.
"There is no excuse - moral or antitrust - to put such a crucial, depleting natural resource in the hands of fewer and fewer industrialists," Nader said.
On matters other than energy, Bell yesterday:
promised Sens. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) the division would look into their charges that an alleged cartel of Japnese companies was destroying the American television manufacturing industry.
said the department is studying the possibility of hiring outside lawyers to aid government lawyers and manage large cases, such as the government's suit against International Business Machines Corp.
said the division would increase its effort to inject competition into regulated industries.
urged Congress to review all the exemptions and immunities that have been carved out as exceptions to the national policy of competition, including agricultural cooperatives and associations, marketing orders, export trade associations, insurance, labor, sports, and newspaper joint operating agreements.
Bell also reiterated his concerns about shared monopolies and the economic powr they exert.
"I believe that where there are only a few firms with dominant positions in a market, there is likely to be something more than mere conscious parallelism underlying anticompetitive impacts," Bell said.
He noted that the division has reason to believe that direct or indirect communications - to set prices - take place in highly concentrated industries and alter the conduct of the individual firms.
'We will seek to remedy the situation either by changing the structure of the industry or by closing down the avenues of communications," he pledged.