SAN FRANCISCO — Just months ago, Enron Corp.’s dominance of the nation’s energy markets prompted California Gov. Gray Davis to accuse the company of profiteering and holding his state hostage with high prices.
The state’s attorney general, Bill Lockyer, went so far as to say he wanted to escort Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay “to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, ‘Hi, my name is Spike, honey.”’
The Houston-based marketer’s vocal support of electricity deregulation sparked resentment in California as rolling blackouts and high prices swept the state, which was in the downward spiral of its deregulation experiment.
Enron also was the top contributor to the campaign of President Bush, whom California leaders say responded too slowly to runaway power prices.
As Enron shares dipped to 36 cents Thursday after soaring to about $85 a year ago, many Californians couldn’t help smirking a bit.
“You live by the sword, you die by the sword,” said Loretta Lynch, president of the state Public Utilities Commission. “Enron’s entire business plan was predicated on market volatility. I’m glad that California’s market has stabilized so much that that type of business has trouble doing business in California.”
A proposed buyout by Dynegy Inc. was called off Wednesday after two major credit agencies lowered Enron’s credit rating to junk status. That left bankruptcy as a seemingly inevitable fate for a company that just months ago was the country’s seventh biggest in revenue.
Enron, which had revenue of $100.8 billion in 2000, crumbled after revealing questionable partnerships and admitting it overstated profits for four years.
Californians aren’t gloating about all aspects of Enron’s downfall, however. CalPERS, the state’s retirement pension fund, owns nearly 3 million shares of Enron stock — about 1 percent of the pension fund’s total investments.
”I take no joy in Enron’s troubles,” Davis said Thursday. “It’s no secret that earlier this year California was faced with a major energy crisis. Some of the companies providing power were driving a very hard bargain, I believe taking advantage of California.”
And the University of California, the nation’s largest university system, counts on Enron to provide electricity for seven of its nine campuses.
UC spokesman Charles McFadden said Thursday that buying power from Enron rather than local utilities has saved the system “tens of millions of dollars.”
“We are monitoring the situation hourly and are reviewing our options in case Enron is unable to continue to function,” McFadden said.
California consumers also are at risk, including hundreds of Californians who signed up with NewPower, an Enron affiliate, for their natural gas.
And attempts to order Enron to refund some of the money critics charged it gouged from California customers could become fruitless if the company’s cash is controlled by a bankruptcy judge.
“This is horrible news for California consumers. It means that Enron won’t have the money to pay back all its ill-gotten gains from California over the past year,” said Michael Aguirre, a San Diego securities lawyer.
Aguirre is suing Enron and several other major power wholesalers for alleged energy market abuses.
On the plus side, Aguirre thinks Enron’s widely anticipated bankruptcy filing will help him make his case against the other power wholesalers, such as Dynegy, Reliant, Williams and Duke Energy.
“Once Enron goes bankrupt, you will see that these unregulated markets were an absolute cesspool,” Aguirre said. “You will see that Enron’s market manipulation was more the rule than the exception.”
Earlier this year, Lockyer subpoenaed Enron’s electricity trading records as he sought to prove the state was the victim of price gouging. California spent more than $9 billion buying electricity for the customers of two financially troubled utilities.
Enron repeatedly has denied all accusations of market manipulation.