Legacy of Power Cost Manipulation

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The New York Times

Two years ago this month, a record was set at the height of the West Coast energy crunch: an hour of electric power was sold for $3,250 — more than a hundred times what the same small block had cost a year earlier.

Now, power supplies are abundant and wholesale prices have plummeted. But the fallout from what state officials say was the largest manipulation of the energy market in modern times has continued to hit West Coast communities hard.

Here in Snohomish County, which has the highest energy rates in the state, more than 14,000 customers have had their electricity shut off for lack of payment this year — a 44 percent increase over 2001. They have seen electric rate increases of 50 percent, as the Snohomish County Public Utility District struggles to pay for long-term power contracts it signed with companies like Enron at the height of the price run-up.

Aided by charities, most customers have had their power returned within a day of being shut off, but others are forced to make choices about which necessities they can live without.

“It’s a pretty tough thing trying to explain to your 5-year-old kid why the lights won’t come on anymore,” said Crystal Faye of Everett. “I didn’t pay much attention to all that stuff about California and Enron, but it’s certainly come home to hurt us now.”

Ms. Faye and her husband, Rick, who are unemployed, have had their power shut off twice this year.

Brianne Dorsey, a single mother, said she removed the baseboard heater in her home here and has had to rely on a small wood stove for heat, because she is $1,000 behind in paying her electric bills.

Faced with such tales tied to rate increases along the West Coast, states are trying to get back some of what they lost during 18 months when energy prices seemed to have no ceiling.

The decision this month by a federal regulatory judge that California utilities had been overcharged by $1.8 billion bolstered the case of Northwest utilities seeking refunds, officials of those utilities said. It also angered California officials, who say they will continue to press for a total of nearly $9 billion in refunds. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to decide on Northwest refunds in the spring.

No matter what the federal government decides, officials say their best hope for compensation is from a number of criminal investigations being pursued by Nevada and the three West Coast states — Washington, Oregon and California. They liken their cause to state lawsuits against tobacco companies, which started as long shots but resulted in enormous settlements.

Aided by a guilty plea in October from a former trader for Enron, and by newly discovered internal documents describing how companies manipulated the energy market in 2000 and 2001, the West Coast states are hoping to get settlement money from more than a dozen energy trading companies.

The companies say they acted legally in taking advantage of a unique market condition, but state officials say the companies created a fake energy crisis.

At the height of the rise in energy costs in early 2001, the Bush administration said the West Coast’s troubles were a precursor of what would happen if the nation did not build 1,900 power plants over the next 20 years.

But state officials in the hardest-hit areas say the crisis was never about energy shortages so much as it was about an epic transfer of wealth. They want payback — in some cases for immediate relief to consumers who cannot pay their bills this winter.

Last month, the Williams Company, in Tulsa, Okla., agreed to a $417 million settlement with Washington, Oregon and California. While admitting no wrongdoing, Williams agreed to pay refunds and other restitution to the three states; in return, the states dropped an antitrust investigation.

Among large energy companies, the states are seeking refunds from the Mirant Corporation, Reliant Resources Inc., Dynegy Inc., Duke Energy and Enron.

“All of us on the West Coast have been hard hit by these rate increases, but the poor in this county have just been hammered,” said Bill Beuscher, who runs the energy assistance program in Snohomish County. Mr. Beuscher said that in the first two weeks the winter energy assistance program was open this year, requests for financial aid were up 55 percent from same period last year.

The power trading companies named in criminal investigations and refund cases did not want to comment publicly while the cases were pending. But several of the companies that are fighting refunds have said in their public filings that the utilities, particularly in the Northwest, are trying to renege on legitimate long-term contracts. They said they did not act in collusion and explained that the highest prices were a result of severe market shifts brought in part by the Northwest drought.

In some cases, the power trading companies said, the utilities resisted buying shorter contracts, which would have cost them less. They also said that some Northwest utilities took advantage of the price spikes and sold power into the market themselves, only to come up short later. The companies said they expected to be vindicated when the government finishes its refund cases next spring.

Mr. Beuscher said he would like to see money from the Williams settlement be used to help people who cannot afford the rate increases. Consumers in Oregon and California have made similar pleas. But officials in all three states say that until there are larger settlements with the energy companies, consumers are unlikely to see relief.

“We hope that the Williams case serves as a template,” said Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for the California attorney general’s office, “because California was monumentally ripped off by these energy traders.”

About seven million consumers in California, who were initially shielded from having to pay for runaway energy costs during the worst part of the state’s deregulation debacle, are paying rate increases averaging 30 percent more than the pre-deregulation prices of 1996. The state has the highest energy rates in the nation, consumer advocates say, although the structure of the rate increase allows poor people and low energy users to escape the recent increases.

“I don’t hold out a lot of hope that we will ever get significant refunds,” said Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a nonprofit group based in Los Angeles. The group calculates that California power customers overpaid a total of $70 billion.

At the height of the energy troubles, the trading companies boasted of record profits in their quarterly reports. But many of those companies are now near bankruptcy as they cope with a downturn that has caused the energy trading sector to lose 80 percent of its value, according to Wall Street analysts.

“It’s like the highwayman robbed us and then spent all the money on booze,” Mr. Heller said.

The companies themselves blame the states. In one case that was heard this month, William A. Wise, chief executive of the El Paso Corporation, which is based in Houston, denied manipulating the market and blamed the officials who set up California’s deregulated energy market for causing the price run-ups with “one bad policy after another.”

Under a New Deal-era law, power companies can be forced to pay refunds if they have charged an “unreasonable and unjust” amount for electricity. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which West Coast governors say did very little to restrain power traders during the height of the run-ups, will determine the exact refund amount, if any.

In the meantime, electric rates throughout the Pacific Northwest, once among the cheapest in the nation, have climbed as much as 50 percent.

California’s problems stem from its chaotic attempt at energy deregulation, approved in 1996 and put in effect in 1998. The Northwest, with its tradition of publicly owned utilities, was drawn into the California crisis by a convergence of dry weather and freewheeling trading of its own.

Usually, the Northwest avoids price fluctuations by providing a steady stream of hydroelectric power, aided by abundant winter rainfall. But in late 2000, a drought in the Northwest forced utilities to buy power on the open market. Some utilities had also tried to sell power into the California market but were pinched by the drought.

At the same time, major energy traders were withholding blocks of power to create the appearance of further shortages, according to Enron memorandums discovered this year.

Refunds were once thought to be unlikely. But then came the memorandums — many of them detailing schemes to manipulate the market under names like Death Star — and the agreement in October by Timothy N. Belden, a former senior trader for Enron, to plead guilty to conspiring with others to manipulate the West Coast energy market.

Prosecutors say Mr. Belden is cooperating with investigations of the power trading companies.

“What really started the ball rolling were the smoking-gun memos, and then the guilty plea has helped as well,” said Kevin Neely, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Justice.

There is also continued bitterness among West Coast officials toward the Bush administration for waiting until June 2001 before putting price controls on the market, which immediately ended the large price spikes and rolling blackouts and brought stability.

Since then, power use has fallen and prices on the short-term market are about where they were before the energy run-up of 2000 and 2001.

“It was a fallacy to blame this crisis on a lack of new power plants,” said Steven Klein, superintendent of Tacoma, Wash.’s public utility, Tacoma Power. “But it’s a shame what came of this. It put a dent in a lot of family budgets, and forced some businesses to close.”

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