FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
July 21, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Red State, Blue State; Green State, Deep State
Paul Street
“Inclusive Capitalism,” Nancy Pelosi, and the Dying Planet
Kevin Zeese
Green Party Growing Pains; Our Own Crisis of Democracy
Anthony DiMaggio
Higher Education Fallacies: What’s Behind Rising Conservative Distrust of Learning?
Andrew Levine
Why Republicans Won’t Dump Trump Anytime Soon
Michael Colby
Ben & Jerry’s Has No Clothes
Bruce Dixon
White Liberal Guilt, Black Opportunism and the Green Party
Edward Hunt
Killing Civilians in Iraq and Syria
Matthew Kovac
Is the Flint Water Crisis a Crime Against Humanity?
Mark Harris
The Revolutionary Imagination: Rosa for Our Times
David Rosen
America’s Five Sex Panics
Robert Fisk
Saudi Arabia: the Kingdom Whose Name We Dare Not Speak At All
Jack Heyman
Class War on the Waterfront: Longshore Workers Under Attack
Kim C. Domenico
Marginalize This:  Turning the Tables on Neoliberal Triumphalism
Brian Cloughley
Trying to Negotiate With the United States
John Laforge
Activists Challenge US Nukes in Germany; Occupy Bunker Deep Inside Nuclear Weapons Base
Jonathan Latham
The Biotech Industry is Taking Over the Regulation of GMOs From the Inside
Russell Mokhiber
DC Disciplinary Counsel Hamilton Fox Won’t Let Whistleblower Lawyer Lynne Bernabei Go
Ramzy Baroud
The Story Behind the Jerusalem Attack: How Trump and Netanyahu Pushed Palestinians to A Corner
Farzana Versey
The Murder of Muslims
Kathy Kelly
At Every Door
David W. Pear
Venezuela Under Siege by U.S. Empire
Maria Paez Victor
Venezuelan Opposition Now Opposes the People
Uri Avnery
Soros’ Sorrows
Joseph Natoli
The Mythos Meme of Choice
Clark T. Scott
High Confidence and Low Methods
Missy Comley Beattie
Glioblastoma As Metaphor
Ann Garrison
Organizing Pennsylvania’s 197: Cheri Honkala on Frontline Communities
Ted Rall
What Happened When I Represented Myself as My Own Lawyer
Colin Todhunter
Codex Alimentarius and Monsanto’s Toxic Relations
Graham Peebles
Europe’s Shameful Refugee Policy
Louis Proyect
Reversals of Imperial Fortune: From the Comanche to Vietnam
Stephen Cooper
Gov. Kasich: “Amazing Grace” Starts With You! 
Jeffrey Wilson
Demolish! The Story of One Detroit Resident’s Home
REZA FIYOUZAT
Billionaire In Panic Over Dems’ Self-Destruct
David Penner
The Barbarism of Privatized Health Care
Yves Engler
Canada in Zambia
Ludwig Watzal
What Israel is Really All About
Randy Shields
Matters of National Insecurity
Vacy Vlanza
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: Through Eyes of an Activist for Palestine
Cesar Chelala
Dr. Schweitzer’s Lost Message
Masturah Alatas
Becoming Italian
Martin Billheimer
Lessons Paid in Full
Charles R. Larson
Review: James Q. Whitman’s “Hitler’s American Model”
David Yearsley
The Brilliance of Velasquez
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail