Jan. 31, 2002
It's long past difficult to separate substance from hyperbole in the Enron Corp. controversy.

It's long past difficult to separate substance from hyperbole in the Enron Corp. controversy.

That the Houston energy trader sacrificed control to ambition is clear. There's no telling what mischief remains to be disclosed. And there's no end to suspicion.

Most recently, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission started investigating the possibility that Enron manipulated wholesale electricity prices in California during the state's energy crisis of 2000-01.

Given what everyone knows about Enron's organizational and accounting camouflage, who can doubt that there were people in this outfit who would kite prices for a quick buck, even if it turns out that nobody got around to it?

Whatever the outcome of the California price investigation, the political damage to the cause of electricity deregulation is done. Enron's improprieties and connection with the California crisis will help the state squirm away from blame it deserves for its flawed attempt at electricity restructuring.

So it goes with rogues, which is what Enron had become.

But was Enron a rogue with enormous influence over federal energy policy?

That's a separate question and another suspicion under intense scrutiny. The Bush administration's energy policy proposal-the basis of reasonable legislation passed by the House last year-is in jeopardy as a result.

The best indication of influence so far is nomination by President George W. Bush last year of Pat Wood III as FERC chairman and Nora Brownell as a FERC commissioner. Wood and Brownell were two of eight FERC recommendations that former Enron Chairman Ken Lay acknowledges he made by letter to the administration.

There also is the statement from Vice-President Richard Cheney, after he met with Lay, that wholesale electricity price caps wouldn't solve California's energy crisis. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) calls this "disturbing" and has begun an investigation.

Lost in Boxer's anxiety is FERC's implementation, no doubt against Enron's wishes, of the wholesale price "mitigation" scheme FERC implemented for the US West in the middle of last year.

Furthermore, Lay's input is hardly necessary to the judgment, by Cheney or anyone else, that price caps at any level make for bad policy. The suggestion that Cheney said what he did because a big contributor asked him to is a stretch.

The same applies to the FERC nominations Lay supposedly choreographed. Is it not possible that the administration would have nominated Wood and Brownell if Enron had never pushed itself so aggressively into political affairs? Of course it's possible, especially in the case of Wood, who headed the Texas Public Utility Commission while Bush was governor.

For all of Enron's political giving and memos, meetings, and letters, the company didn't score what would have been its biggest political prize: federalization in Bush energy policy of retail electricity deregulation.

Yes, it gave a lot of money to the Bush-Cheney campaign. Yes, it meddled in White House business. But, no, it wasn't as successful at influencing policy as Boxer and others want people to believe.

It's clear from Bush's background, from his statements before and since taking office, and from what's widely known about his disposition on the subject that his administration would have behaved on energy pretty much as it has done even if Enron had never existed.

The big question isn't whether Enron bought energy policy. It didn't. The question is why Enron's management thought it necessary to waste so much money this way.

(Contact the author at [email protected].)