Too Soon? DOJ Seeks to End 1911 Standard Oil Breakup, Horseshoe Regulation

By Timothy Puko

The wheels of federal bureaucracy turn—and turn, and turn—but sometimes they stop.

That’s why the Justice Department wants to bring to an end its breakup of Standard Oil Co., which started in 1911, along with its efforts to ensure competition in the markets for horseshoes and player-piano rolls.

After a review of old legal agreements, the DOJ on Tuesday asked the U.S. District Court in St. Louis to terminate the decree that was the ultimate outcome of its case championed by President Theodore Roosevelt against the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey.

Back then, few knew gasoline and cars would so dramatically become the oil industry’s primary purpose, or that America wouldn’t be the world’s only dominant oil supplier, so the case was huge for federal regulators.

“To say it’s been overtaken by events,” said Daniel Yergin, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning oil-industry history, “is a vast understatement.

Same with the horseshoes.

The DOJ review includes a decree related to the Master Horseshoers’ National Protective Association of America, which barred 13 defendants from blocking potential competitors from the market for “drilled horseshoes, adjustable calks or rubber hoof pads.”

At the time, major trusts and cartels aimed to control industries of all kinds, big and small. Not so much anymore in horseshoes, and the DOJ has proposed termination of the decree.

It’s part of a huge review at the agency’s antitrust division, which is revisiting hundreds of legal agreements dating as far back as the 1800s to ferret out those that have outlived their usefulness.

Entire industries have gone extinct, and companies have evolved into new businesses, but some agreements live on in the bureaucratic back files.

“If the underlying competitive harm that originally resulted in the decree doesn’t exist, does it make any sense for it to continue?” said the department’s antitrust chief, Makan Delrahim. “This initiative is one way for us to modernize our enforcement priorities and our mission here.”

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