Companies fear energy speculation limits would raise costs

For some North Texas companies, like airlines and natural gas producers, the energy futures market is one more tool to help control fuel costs or lock in prices for production.

For others, such as financial firms, it's just one more way to make money.

That may soon change. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission is considering stricter regulations on speculators in the energy futures markets.

"I believe that the CFTC has a duty to protect the American public from fraud, manipulation and excessive speculation," said the commission’s chairman, Gary Gensler, during public hearings on futures trading last week. "Thus, it should be the CFTC that sets position limits on energy market participants."

In the past 10 years, more and more energy futures contracts have been written and traded.

The annual volume of all energy futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange grew more than 450 percent between 1998 and 2008.

After the roller-coaster ride of 2008 in the price of crude oil, experts say it is likely that the commission will put limits on nonproducers and nonconsumers of energy products.

And they have to consider whether the new rules will constrict the market so much that it will make it more expensive for companies, like Southwest Airlines and Fort Worth-based producer Range Resources, to hedge energy commodities.

"Because there is less money in the market, it may be more difficult for a given business to find a hedge . . . especially if speculators are shut out of the market in any kind of meaningful way," said Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University.