Enron and the Green Seal

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

The fall of Enron sounds the death knell for one of the great rackets of the past decade: green seals of approval, whereby some outfit like the Natural Resources Defense Council or the Environmental Defense Fund would issue testimonials to the enviro-conscience and selfless devotion to the public weal of corporations like Enron.

These green seals of approval were part of the neoliberal pitch, that fuddy-duddy regulation should yield to modern, “market-oriented solutions” to environmental problems, which essentially means bribing corporations in the hope they’ll stop their polluting malpractices. Indeed, NRDC and EDF were always the prime salesfolk of neoliberal remedies for environmental problems. In fact, NRDC was socked into the Enron lobby machine so deep you couldn’t see the soles of its feet. Here’s what happened.

In 1997 high-flying Enron found itself in a pitched battle in Oregon, where it planned to acquire Portland General Electric, Oregon’s largest public utility. Warning that Enron’s motives were of a highly predatory nature, the staff of the state’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) opposed the merger. They warned that an Enron takeover would mean less ability to protect the environment, increased insecurity for PGE’s workers and, in all likelihood, soaring prices. Other critics argued that Enron’s actual plan was to cannibalize PGE, in particular its hydropower, which Enron would sell into California’s energy market.

But at the very moment when such protests threatened to balk Enron of its prize, into town rode NRDC’s top energy commissar, Ralph Cavanagh, Heinz environmental genius award pinned to his armor and flaunting ties to the Energy Foundation, a San Francisco-based outfit providing financial wattage for many citizen and environmental groups that work on utility and enviro issues.

Cavanagh lost no time whipping the refractory Oregon greens into line. In concert with Enron, the NRDC man put together a memo of understanding, pledging that the company would lend financial support to some of these groups’ pet projects.

But Cavanagh still had some arduous politicking ahead. An OK for the merger had to come from the PUC, whose staff was adamantly opposed. So, on Valentine’s Day, 1997, Cavanagh showed up at a hearing in Salem, Oregon, to plead Enron’s case.

Addressing the three PUC commissioners, Cavanagh averred that this was “the first time I’ve ever spoken in support of a utility merger.” If so, it was the quickest transition from virginity to seasoned service in the history of intellectual prostitution. Cavanagh flaunted the delights of an Enron embrace: “What we’ve put before you with this company is, we believe, a robust assortment of public benefits for the citizens of Oregon which would not emerge, Mr. Chairman, without the merger.”

With a warble in his throat, Cavanagh moved into rhetorical high gear: “The Oregonian asks the question, ‘Can you trust Enron?’ On stewardship issues and public benefit issues I’ve dealt with this company for a decade, often in the most contentious circumstances, and the answer is, yes.”

Cavanagh won the day for the Houston-based energy giant. The PUC approved the merger, and it wasn’t long before the darkest suspicions of Enron’s plans were vindicated. The company raised rates, tried to soak the ratepayers with the cost of its failed Trojan nuclear reactor and moved to put some of PGE’s most valuable assets on the block. Enron’s motive had indeed been to get access to the hydropower of the Northwest, the cheapest in the country, and sell it into the California market, the priciest and-in part because of Cavanagh’s campaigning for deregulation-a ripe energy prize awaiting exploitation.

Then, after two years, the company Cavanagh had hailed as being “engaged and motivated” put PGE up on the auction block. Pending sale of PGE, Enron has been using it as collateral for loans approved by a federal bankruptcy judge.

Enron is best known as George W. Bush’s prime financial backer in his presidential quest. But it was a bipartisan purveyor of patronage: to its right, conservative Texas Senator Phil Gramm; to its left, liberal Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee (who had Enron’s CEO Ken Lay as her finance chairman in a Democratic primary fight preluding her first successful Congressional bid; her Democratic opponent was Craig Washington, an anti-NAFTA maverick Democrat the Houston establishment didn’t care for).

Today some House Republicans want to treat the Enron collapse as a criminal matter, while Democrats have been talking in vaguer terms about cleaning up accounting rules and plugging holes in the regulatory system. The inability of Enron’s employees to sell company stock from their 401(k)s while high-ups absconded with millions may doom Bush’s promised onslaught on Social Security. There are many morals in Enron’s collapse, and the role of that green seal of approval should not be forgotten.

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