Dianne Feinstein

Manipulation of the California Energy Market - June 7, 2004

Dianne Feinstein
June 07, 2004— U.S. Senate, Washington, DC
Congressional floor speech
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Mr. President, I rise today to discuss the callous attitudes of Enron employees that were brought to light recently in transcripts released by the Snohomish County Public Utility District in Washington and broadcast on CBS News. These tapes provide concrete evidence of the manipulation and fraud that was perpetrated by energy companies in the 2000-2001 energy crisis in California. This manipulation resulted in the cost of energy in California increasing from $7 billion in 1999 to $27 billion in 2000 and 2001, respectively. This type of price gouging and market manipulation can and will happen again if the energy market is not restructured.

I urge the California State Legislature to take action on Speaker of the Assembly Fabian Nunez's bill -- AB 2006, the Reliable Electric Service Act. This bill would re-regulate the energy market and protect small consumers served by utilities from this type of unethical behavior.

In more than a dozen taped conversations, the Enron power traders show complete disdain for consumers throughout the West, and particularly those in California. While I cannot read the transcripts verbatim due to the coarse language used by the traders, I would like to read to you some excerpts:

  • One trader sang: “Burn, baby, burn. That's a beautiful thing.” This was in reference to a wildfire that shut down a major transmission line, decreasing power supplies and raising energy prices.
  • Another trader said: “Just cut 'em off. They're so [expletive]. They should just bring back…horses and carriages, …lamps, …kerosene lamps.” (Expletives Deleted)

To have traders say these things shows a complete disregard for the health and safety of Californians. And this was not an isolated trader – this was a mentality apparently endemic to Enron employees. The only thing these traders cared about was how much money they could bleed from the California marketplace.

Let me read you a second excerpt: One trader complained: “They're [expletive] taking all the money back from you guys? All the money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California,” A second responded: “Yeah, grandma Millie, man.” The first responded: “Yeah, now she wants her [expletive] money back for all the power you've charged right up, [expletive phrase], for [expletive] $250 a megawatt hour.”

To thumb your nose at a grandmother on a fixed income is completely reprehensible, but it was how these traders operated – with no compassion for those suffering from their behavior—that galls me the most. When I heard these tapes, I knew that we could not expect any ethical conduct from traders in this energy market.

Let me read you another excerpt, this one illustrating the lengths these traders would go to manipulate the market: Tom: The headline before that is “California Grid Operators Call Stage 2 Power Emergency as Reserves Drop.” Matt: Yeah. They're on the ropes today. I exported like a [expletive] 400 megs. Tom: Wow. Matt: I bought it all. I'll see you guys—I'm takin' mine to the desert. Tom: [Expletive] ‘em, right? Matt: I think those gamblers in Las Vegas need the power more than you. Matt goes on to say that he and Enron were getting rich off of exporting power out of California when Californians needed it most.

The transcripts prove that Enron intentionally congested transmission lines and used its influence to delay wholesale price caps in order to maximize its profits. Other transcripts also prove that Enron traders made secret deals with power producers, deliberately driving up prices by ordering power plants shut down.

But Enron did not act alone in manipulating the California energy market. In fact, this type of manipulation was pervasive among many energy companies operating in California. Here are several more examples. Reliant, for instance, decided to game the market by deliberately holding back power generation for two days at its facility near Barstow in late June 2000. This is when the State needed power the most.

Worse, these decisions were made from the top. The Vice-President of power trading at Reliant directed traders to manipulate the market in this manner. At one point, Reliant charged the State of California $1,900 per megawatt-hour for electricity, or approximately 6300 percent more than the historic standard of $30 per megawatt-hour. Yet the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission only fined Reliant $13.8 million and the company did not have to admit any guilt or wrongdoing. Dynegy also demonstrated manipulative behavior such as load shifting, false reporting, and double selling. The company deliberately reported false gas market data to publications and created bogus trades to drive up the price of electricity. Dynegy was only concerned with its bottom line—in the first quarter of 2001, the company posted a recurring net income of $137.5 million, a 73 percent increase in net income from the $79.4 million it reported in 2000 and a 102 percent increase from the company's reported first quarter income in 1999. For this manipulative behavior, FERC levied a fine of only $3 million, and, again, Dynegy did not have to admit any guilt.

In yet another instance, El Paso Merchant Energy and its affiliates inflated the price of natural gas by reducing deliveries to the State. In fact, El Paso withheld capacity from at least 21 percent of its pipelines that delivered natural gas to the California border. It is estimated that El Paso 's price manipulation cost California 's consumers $3.7 billion. FERC settled with El Paso, letting them walk away, again, without admitting any wrongdoing, for a $1.5 billion fine. That's only a fraction of the cost that California consumers were forced to bear due to El Paso 's misdeeds.

These companies used many deliberate strategies to manipulate the market, which included:

  • Death Star
  • Get Shorty
  • Fat Boy
  • Load Shift
  • Black Widow
  • Red Congo

California is still suffering from this unethical conduct. Californians are forced to pay higher prices for electricity because of long-term contracts that were signed when wholesale prices were artificially inflated by price manipulation. And Californians still have not gotten the $9 billion in refunds they deserve, which were overcharges as a result of Enron and other companies' manipulation of the energy markets.

These tapes provide concrete evidence that there was intentional manipulation and fraud perpetrated by energy companies during the 2000-2001 energy crisis in California. That's why I have joined my colleague, Senator Boxer, in calling upon the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to immediately refund California the $9 billion that it is owed and to order a renegotiation of the long-term contracts that were made under manipulated prices. These transcripts further prove that the rates Californians paid for electricity were not “just and reasonable.” Consumers are not served well by a deregulated marketplace where traders from companies including Enron, Dynegy, Reliant, Mirant, Reliant, Williams, AES, CMS, El Paso Merchant Energy, and Duke can manipulate the market in the grossest way. Absent strong action, I have no doubt that this unethical, immoral and illegal behavior will continue.

That is why I support re-regulating California 's energy markets. Speaker Nunez's bill would create a regulatory framework that will put California back in charge of its energy future. The bill would:

  • Attempt to ensure reliable electricity at stable and affordable rates for small customers;
  • Require California 's utilities to meet a renewable portfolio standard of 20 percent by 2010; and
  • Require utilities to have enough generation capacity to meet the demands of their consumers and have a significant reserve on hand in case of an emergency.

This bill will provide Californians the protection they need from exorbitant energy prices and energy traders with no ethical standards.

California was the first to experiment with de-regulation. Sadly, the 1996 deregulation was a total failure for consumers in California. We learned the hard way that energy is not a commodity like pork bellies or frozen orange juice, but is a public good. California needs to put in place a new framework to take regulate the energy market in order to ensure reliability and reasonable prices for consumers. In other words, consumers should be protected from price spikes, market manipulation, and blackouts.

In closing, I cannot express how disgusted I am by the newest Enron transcripts. I wish we could have prevented the manipulative behavior in the first place. Congress still has not acted to pass bills that would prevent this kind of unethical and immoral manipulative behavior in the energy markets, such as those that were offered by me, Senator Cantwell and others. As a result, I feel that California must act on its own to control its own energy supplies in order to prevent further manipulation of our markets and keep our lights on. CBS News is to be commended for bringing these tapes to light. It is imperative that we learn as much as we can about Enron's behavior -- so that we know its impact on the Western Energy markets and so that this type of fraud and manipulation can be prevented from ever happening again.