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Remembering ‘Green’ Enron (Part I: The Kyoto Moment)

[Ed. note: This week marks the 10th anniversary of Enron's bankruptcy filing (December 2, 2001). Enron's view of energy sustainability drives the Obama Administration's "green 'dream' team" today, so such a look back at Enron's crony capitalism is merited.]

Beginning in the late 1980s, global warming became a bread-and-butter issue for Ken Lay, Enron’s leader and up-and-coming industry visionary. Enron in the 1990s became a full-fledged “green” company, practicing “energy sustainability” with its investments in solar power, wind power, energy-efficiency services, and environmental services.

No U.S.-based company sounded the tocsin over climate change more than Enron. What John Browne did as head of the international energy major BP, Ken Lay did in the United States, working with interest groups and political leaders to push the energy industry and public toward carbon dioxide (CO2) regulation.

Lay had his reasons—seven in terms of company profit centers, all of which stood to gain from government restrictions on carbon emissions. They involved:

· Natural gas production (relative to oil and coal),

· Natural gas transmission (relative to oil and coal),

· Natural gas-fired electric generation (relative to oil and coal),

· Energy outsourcing (a/k/a energy efficiency) services,

· Renewable energy generation (wind and solar),

· CO2 emissions trading (joining company trading in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide), and

· Environmental outsourcing (a/k/a environmental services).

Of these, Enron’s natural gas activities were core, profitable activities (and “win, win” economically and environmentally, in their important applications). But the last four areas were problematic from the start and never profitable, even with special government favor. In retrospect, almost no amount of government subsidy would have been enough for these nascent businesses.

Kyoto Protocol To “Monetize” Enron ‘s Agenda

But there was always hope.

In late 1997, an elated Enron climate lobbyist reported that a climate-change accord was reached in Kyoto, Japan, among 38 Annex 1 countries (the developed world) to reduce their collective greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent by 2008–12 compared to base 1990 levels. The United States, itself committed to a 7 percent decrease, at least in principle, would need new waves of government intervention to reduce its emissions, which meant more subsidies and new mandates for politically correct renewable energies (wind and solar, not hydropower) and energy conservation programs.

Thus Enron’s John Palmisano infamously wrote from Kyoto:

If implemented [the Kyoto Protocol] will do more to promote Enron’s business than will almost any other regulatory initiative outside of restructuring of the [electricity] and natural gas industries in Europe and the United States…. The endorsement of emissions trading was another victory for us…. This agreement will be good for Enron stock!!

It was time to turn deeds into dollars, he added:

Enron now has excellent credentials with many ‘green’ interests including Greenpeace, WWF [World Wildlife Fund], NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council], GermanWatch, The US Climate Action Network, the European Climate Action Network, Ozone Action, WRI [World Resources Institute], and Worldwatch [Institute],” reported Palmisano. “This position should be increasingly cultivated and capitalized on (monetized).

Enron was popular at Kyoto. Palmisano spoke on panels and received an award from the Climate Institute on behalf of Ken Lay and Enron. And the praise continued. Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 1998 identified Lay’s company as a key player in a coming “energy revolution.” The authors explained: “Enron, originally a large Texas-based natural gas company, has made a strong move in the renewables field with its acquisition of Zond, the largest wind power company in the United States, and its investment in Solarex, the second largest U. S. manufacturer of photovoltaic cells.”

While closely associated with both Bush Administrations, Lay was ideologically closer to another political figure on the issue of climate change. “In Earth in the Balance, Senator Al Gore stated: ‘Higher taxes on fossil fuels … is one of the logical first steps in changing our policies in a manner consistent with a more responsible approach to the environment’,” stated Lay. “I agree.”

————–

This post is taken from Robert Bradley, Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy (2009), pp. 306–308.

18 comments

1 emmaliza { 12.01.11 at 9:28 am }

Thanks for this reminder of the corrupt partner in Al Gore’s giant scam. Truth eventually always emerges, given time. The damage done cannot be helped, but further damage can be prevented if people demand an end to the government’s wasting our money. The lesson learned is that corporatism is not the same as capitalism; in fact, per Webster’s, corporatism is fascism.

2 rbradley { 12.02.11 at 4:18 pm }

Rod Adams at his blog Atomic Insights has this critical post on my work (and that of Cato’ Jerry Taylor): Challenging Master Resource’s implication that Enron was the only rent seeking manipulator (November 25, 2011).

I am not a big nuclear fan because it is wildly uneconomic versus $4/MMBTU natural gas, and banks will not support it in the free world. Not that nuclear has a very high up-front capital cost versus fossil-fuel-fired plants, and that debtors was certainty that those costs can be paid back, which means long-term fixed-priced contracts. Until voluntary purchasers sign such agreements (and they will not), then such projects are uneconomic.

Obama’s proposed $18 billion loan guarantee for new nuclear is another tell tale sign of nuclear’s plight in a competitive market.

I welcome nuclear power if and when it is economical in the markeptlace. May it improve and improve and improve until the market (not me and Mr. Adams) decides to build reactors. Until then, it is a backstop technology in the U.S. and many other areas of the world.

3 Rod Adams { 12.03.11 at 2:35 am }

@Robert

The problem with your logic is that you ignore all of the things that “the market”, which is made up of numerous thinking human beings, has done to make nuclear power uneconomic. Nuclear energy’s competitors have helped to erect as many barriers as they can imagine to hinder nuclear energy development and raise its costs.

When you break it down into straightforward technical analysis, nuclear fission is simply a very reliable source of heat that can be substituted for the heat generated by hydrocarbon combustion in very similar thermodynamic “heat engines”. In fact, there have been several cases of power plants – like the Ft. St. Vrain reactor – that started their lives as nuclear heated plants that were later converted into power plants with a hydrocarbon heat source.

If that is the case, then a critical thinker might ask why nuclear energy systems would be all that much more expensive than hydrocarbon combustion systems. It is certainly not because they need a more extensive fuel transportation infrastructure, more emission control systems, or more extensive fire/explosion damage response teams.

No, the reason that nuclear energy systems are so darned expensive is that people have mistakenly been told that the very tiniest amount of radiation is dangerous enough to spend hundreds of millions in multiple layers of protection. It is because they have been mistakenly told that nuclear plants are somehow more vulnerable than all of the rest of our society’s infrastructure to potential attack by “terrorists” and need an average expenditure of $300 million or so in “security boundaries” and an annual expenditure of $30 million or so in security forces.

Even with all of those artificially raised barriers, nuclear fission is pretty darned competitive against hydrocarbon combustion when fuel prices are in the range of $7-10 per million BTU and beats it hands down at prices higher than that. The primary advantage is that fission fuel costs an average of 60 cents per million BTU, even when you add in ALL of the costs, including long term storage.

In markets where nuclear is an option, there is virtually no oil being burned to produce electricity because $100 per barrel is equivalent to about $17-20 per million BTU depending on the grade of oil. It is not lack of “free markets” that encourages countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia to be pushing hard to increase their supply of nuclear energy; it is simple market economics. They want to stop burning oil, a product that has a market value of $17-30 per million BTU, to produce electricity when there is an option that competes favorably with $7-10 per million BTU.

In countries where nuclear is an option and the people have not been hypnotized into believing that it is somehow more dangerous than highly combustible (and explosive) natural gas, logical businessmen will not avoid nuclear in favor of LNG that is currently selling for an average world price of $15-20 per million BTU. They will not avoid nuclear in markets where the price of pipeline gas is, by contract, linked to the price of oil. They might, however, reluctantly follow the edicts of governments full of politicians that have been purchased by Russian natural gas suppliers.

Your misunderstanding of history (or your political leanings) are also exposed by your characterization of the $18 billion loan guarantee program as “Obama’s”. That program and that original number was passed in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, more than three years before President Obama was elected.

“The market” does not make decisions. Individual human beings with assets, analysis, and vision do. I concur that, so far, the individual choices of the people who operate large utility companies in the US have been to shy away from nuclear in the years since June 2008 while natural gas prices here have been suppressed to a level that is about 1/3 of their level in most developed nations around the world.

However, there are individuals who have made a different choice and decided to invest in nuclear energy because of its natural advantages and its potential for future market success. If that was not true, I would not have the day job I have today as part of the team that is designing the B&W mPower(TM) reactor. (I speak only for myself and not for my employer.)

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

4 Anonymous { 12.03.11 at 3:18 am }

Most, if not all, libertarian doubters of nuclear seem to (conveniently) ignore the elephant in the room that drives nuclear energy’s costs – the government regulation structure of nuclear energy that is not comparable to any other form of energy technology. It takes decades to even get a design approved for construction, and half a decade to get a design that is approved licensed for a specific site. Needless to say, this stifles innovation and risk taking.

Further, libertarian doubters of nuclear seem to neglect to account for the lack of respect for private property the anti-nuclear movement shows in trying to get the government to close down plants that have already been built. Needless to say, having one’s property prevented from being used by government force causes a massive political risk premium to be put on any new nuclear build.

If government regulation were removed, and the private property interests of nuclear plant owners were guaranteed (in that once a plant is built, that plant will be allowed to operate), nuclear’s economics fundamentally change.

If libertarians were willing to get rid of nuclear regulation and place nuclear on a level regulatory playing field with fossil fuels, as well as guarantee the right of private property owners to operate their plants once built, then I am relatively certain the nuclear community would be willing to dump loan guarantees and Price Anderson.

5 rbradley { 12.03.11 at 9:47 pm }

Rod:

$4/MMBtu natural gas–how can nuclear compete against gas plants for additional generation?

6 Rod Adams { 12.04.11 at 3:50 am }

@Robert – I do not assume that natural gas will remain at $4 per million BTU. What would keep prices that low when the world market price for natural gas is closer to $15 per million BTU and there is a substantial amount of LNG capacity in the world? What will keep gas prices at $4 per million BTU as regulations are tightened as a result of the damage being caused by short-cuts in hydraulic fracturing? What will keep gas at $4 per million BTU if the economy recovers?

What will keep gas at $4 per million BTU if the rate of consumption increases for power generation to replace shuttered coal plants being forced out of the market by Chesapeake funded “Coal is filthy” campaigns and nuclear plants like Indian Point, Oyster Creek, Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim that are all under significant pressure by natural gas funded opposition groups?

I am sure that you are well versed in the law of supply and demand and can find the charts that show the history of natural gas price volatility.

One more thing – in many of the places where coal plants are being forced out of the market, there is NO cheap natural gas available because no one ever built any gas pipelines to supply areas that had plenty of cheap coal. The American Public Power Association has computed that they would need about $700-800 billion in infrastructure investments for pipelines and new transmission lines to replace coal generation with natural gas.

http://atomicinsights.com/2010/07/appa-detailed-study-on-effects-of-switching-from-coal-to-natural-gas-for-electricity-generation-not-a-bridge-fuel-strategy.html

Quite a few of the owners of those facilities are interested in small modular reactors (<300 MWe/unit) that do not need an extensive fuel infrastructure in order to operate in the same place as the old coal plants. That kind of siting would allow the nuclear plants to make use of existing water resources and transmission corridors.

7 rbradley { 12.04.11 at 9:56 am }

Rod:

I am thinking in terms of North America–and I am thinking in terms of what is the best deal for market participants.

$4?MMBtu natural gas is the result of a technological boom, and the gas industry is desperately trying to get transporation demand for natural gas (NAT GAS ACT) to increase prices. One can get long-term fixed gas prices to lock-in, say, $5-$6 gas to show the banks for financing. Yes, new infrastructure is needed to complete the drilling boom, but that is happending too.

Nuclear is just not competitive to gas whatever way you slice it. Are you willing to eliminate the loan guarantees that Obama is pushing for nuclear (yes, the $18 billion is his deal now) and let the market decide? Anyone willing to build a ‘spec’ nuclear plant based on natural gas being expensive in the future?

8 Rod Adams { 12.05.11 at 4:58 am }

@Robert

Yes, I am willing to eliminate the nuclear loan guarantees. They are unlikely to do anything to reduce the financing cost of nuclear projects and they add a huge lever for the fossil fuel-funded opposition to nuclear energy. At least one of the two remaining projects has already declared that it has no real interest in getting a loan guarantee.

SCANA is building VC Summer without any financial support from the federal government. Instead, it is paying $272 for every NRC regulator hour expended in the often delayed process of obtaining its construction and operating license.

No money has been provided to nuclear energy projects as a result of the highly touted loan guarantee program that was established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. There has been a tremendous amount of sound and publicity about the $8.3 billion associated with the Vogtle 3 & 4 project. That amount, talked about since the highly public announcement in the spring of 2010, was just a promise, contingent upon the issuance of a construction and operating license by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Even though the NRC staff finished their evaluation well over a month ago, the Harry Reid protege who is now the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to schedule a commission meeting to approve the AP1000 design certification and the Vogtle COL that depends on that design certification.

I have analyzed the annual report of ExxonMobil, the largest single natural gas producer in the US after its purchase of XTO. At current prices, it is reporting virtually no net income from that $41 billion purchase. The computed ROI for 2010 was 1.1% per year.

http://atomicinsights.com/2011/02/exxonmobil-earnings-9300-million-for-qtr-just-36-million-from-xto-production.html

Energy market participants like ExxonMobil, however, will get a huge return on their investment if they can convince people that gas will be so cheap for so long that it would be better to avoid investing in nuclear power. There is a very long delay time associated with building nuclear plants. When projects are derailed, it takes a long time to restore them. Qualified nuclear plant designers are generally bright and highly educated people who can always find plenty of other work. They will be difficult to attract back into a business that has a history of layoffs.

If natural gas has no nuclear competition, there will be nothing to restrain future price increases. History has demonstrated that natural gas price increases driven by supply/demand imbalances are not gentle rises but sharp and sustained price increases. They harm everyone except the producers and the people that financed that production.

I do not expect that the lights would go out if US demand exceeds US supply. The multinational petroleum companies who are spending so much money touting natural gas and claiming a 100-year supply (even though the real number is closer to 90 years) are ready and willing to bring in LNG at international prices. They have invested hundreds of billions in LNG projects during the past couple of years and really want to put that capital investment to use.

No wonder “Wall Street” and natural gas cheerleaders do not like nuclear energy and prefer to damn it with faint praise.

9 Rod Adams { 12.05.11 at 6:40 pm }

@Robert

During the day I thought some more about the following statement that you made:

“$4/MMBtu natural gas is the result of a technological boom, and the gas industry is desperately trying to get transportation demand for natural gas (NAT GAS ACT) to increase prices.”

Can you recognize that the very same industry that is “desperately trying to get transportation demand for natural gas (NAT GAS ACT) to increase prices” might also be working hard to increase its share of the electrical power market in order to increase prices?

In the summer of 2010, Chesapeake Energy VP Tom Price bragged to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association that he led a swat team that partnered with environmental organizations in such campaigns as its “Coal is Filthy” series of ads. He did not talk about partnering to shut down nuclear plants, but how much of a logical stretch would it be to suspect that companies like Chesapeake might be working to spread disinformation about nuclear energy? Have you noticed how many more “clean natural gas” ads you are seeing in the post Fukushima era – after the media ran so many scary hype stories.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. spoke to the same COGA conference as Price did. He is a notorious antinuclear activist whose Riverkeeper organization is working hard to shut down the Indian Point nuclear plant outside of New York. Replacing the output of that 2100 MWe plant would increase the demand for natural gas by about 300-350 million cubic feet per day for about 90% of the days of the year. That amount of gas would fuel a LOT of trucks.

BTW – both of the speeches I mentioned are available on video at
http://www.energyepicenter.org/index.html

What would stop natural gas promoters from temporarily suppressing gas prices by over producing so that they could discourage nuclear plant construction? If you are as old as I am, you will recall that short term price wars were a standard part of the petroleum marketing tool box right up until the summer of 1973.

10 rbradley { 12.05.11 at 8:26 pm }

Rod:

What inspires the statement above ‘… for the fossil fuel-funded opposition to nuclear energy.’? I do not know of any ‘fossil fuel interest’ that is paying a free market group to oppose nuclear. I’ve never ever had a discussion with a fossil fuel interest about working against nuclear, and I would bet that my counterparts at Cato, AEI, CEI, would say the same thing. We free market types are against uneconomic government-dependent energy, whether it is ethanol or whatever.

A historical note: the prolonged high natural gas prices occurred because of maximum price regulation, ironically, which caused shortages in interstate markets … and thus desperate fill-in gas at name-your-price. Free market periods of no price regulation (such as today) have never encountered the high prices of the 1970s. Winter peaks maybe, year-round no.

Let the market decide…. I would not pick any fuel as an inherent winner, much less nuclear in our lifetimes in the US.

11 rbradley { 12.05.11 at 8:30 pm }

Yes, natural gas interests have tried to get special government favor to increase demand, whether the anti-coal campaign of Price and Chesapeake some years ago or Boone Pickens against oil today. Good point–but nuclear is still way out of the ballpark at gas prices that can be locked-in today.

12 Rod Adams { 12.06.11 at 4:01 am }

@Robert

My statement about the fossil fuel funded opposition to nuclear energy is based on numerous hints and documented pieces of evidence that can be found on Atomic Insights by searching with the term “smoking gun”. The series includes such evidence as an ad paid for by the Oil Heat Institute of Long Island promoting “Solar not Nuclear” during the period when the Shoreham nuclear plant was being constructed and a more recent advertisement from the coal miner unions in Australia claiming that allowing nuclear energy would lead to massive job losses.

The series includes some information on the fossil fuel funded history of Cato and an explanation of the concept of “damning with faint praise” that I learned during my service in the US Navy. There are at least two dozen smoking gun articles; the series remains open for more evidence.

You statement about the tie between price regulation and natural gas prices ignores the price history of natural gas during the price deregulated period between 2002-2008. Gas prices for commercial electrical power customers rose rather steadily from about $3 per million BTU to a four month period between Apr-Jul 2008 with monthly average prices exceeding $10 per million BTU. (http://www.eia.gov/dnav/ng/hist/n3045us3m.htm)

It was not a dramatic technological innovation that caused the price to fall from those levels – it was a collapse in the demand due to a deep recession. Even with all of the highly touted shale gas, US natural gas production today is only a few percent higher than it was in 1970.

I would “let the market decide” if I was not well aware of the ways that thinking individuals who are motivated by earning money for themselves can manipulate that market by influencing behavior.

There might have been an “invisible hand” in Adam Smith’s day, but in a world full of high speed computers and enormously concentrated wealth and power, the hands working to tip the scales are a lot more visible for those who take the time to look.

In a discussion about the “uncompetitive” cost of nuclear energy, when a free market advocate like you or Jerry Taylor refuses to admit or address the massive cost burden imposed by layer upon layer of regulations that have nothing to do with safety, I become very suspicious.

Sure, let’s compete on a level playing field – allow nuclear energy to adhere to the same safety standards as its competition.

One more thing – what is the longest term gas future available on the market today? How long can today’s prices be locked in?

13 Rod Adams { 12.06.11 at 4:14 am }

To put numbers on my statement about natural gas production levels – in 1973, monthly US marketed natural gas production was about 1.9 trillion cubic feet per month or 22.5 TCF per year. In 2010, monthly US marketed natural gas production was virtually identical to those numbers.

(http://www.eia.gov/dnav/ng/hist/n9050us2m.htm)

I realize that there was quite a bit of variation over the intervening years, but a “best fit” line through the production data would show that production has been essentially constant, with increases from newly developed technology and newly drilled wells just barely making up for the depletion from older sources.

14 rbradley { 12.06.11 at 11:26 am }

On the smoking gun, good detective work. I am always interested in inter-fuel political fighting, which is my specialty as far as a lot of my writing on political capitalism )vs. free-market capitalism) goes. Keep searching and documenting …

On unnecessary regulation, I would have to let insurance companies (sans Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act ) try to determine that in a free market.

But nuclear is so far out of the market cost-wise with natural gas prices for the foreseeable future, I do not think overregulation tips the scales. That is what Jerry Taylor and others are trying to argue.

On the question of locking-in gas prices, the plant operators seem to want to ride the spot market to best compete, but if they needed to ‘beat’ a nuclear plant, here is what a trader told me:

“Market is very liquid out five years and somewhat liquid out ten years, although the bid/ask spread widens greatly as you try to do longer term and/or bigger volumes. I assume longer than ten years you would have to search hard for the right counterparty.”

To me, nuclear is a great backstop technology whose time is sometime in the future in a fossil-fuel-rich world given relative economics.

15 Rod Adams { 12.07.11 at 3:28 am }

@Robert – What does the Price-Anderson insurance pool system have to do with regulation? Throwing that topic out during a discussion about nuclear energy capital costs comes straight out of the antinuclear playbook issued by UCS, NRDC, Greenpeace, RMI, and Sierra Club.

If you are really curious about how the insurance pool system works, how much it has cost taxpayers, and how much it has paid out in its fifty-five years of collecting fees from nuclear plant operators, a good source is the NRC’s fact sheet.

http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/funds-fs.html

With regard to the cost of regulation, here are just a few examples of the multitude of layers that I am talking about.

Applicants for a federal license (design certification, early site permit, construction permit, or combined construction and operating license) pay full cost of the application process. Current fee per regulator hour is $273.00

http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/cfr/part170/part170-0020.html

Estimated cost in NRC fees of obtaining a design certification is $50-$100 million IF the application is based on light water technology that has a 55 year history on which to base decisions. All bets and estimates are off if the applicant decides to be innovative and use one of the half dozen or more other technologies that have been proven at demonstration scale through several decades of testing here and abroad.

All operating reactors pay the full federal cost of regulation. The annual fee starts at $4.7 million per reactor, no matter how large or small it is and no matter how exceptional its record is. If an operator somehow upsets its permanently assigned resident inspectors (there are two for every plant), it may end up paying for additional regulatory services to the tune of several million per year in fees – plus about 2-3 times that amount in salaries and lost time in responding to the additional “assistance.” TVA recently got put on the bad boy list merely by having a valve turn out to be not operable in automatic – though it could still be manually repositioned.

One final example from first-hand experience. I have been employed for the past 13 months on a project whose goal is to get a design certification for a refined light water reactor. (You can read all about it by search on B&W mPower reactor). The team is currently estimated to have 250 full time employees. We are currently projecting that we will be ready to turn in our design certification application by the end of 2013 and have estimated that it will take about 42-48 months for the NRC to review that application.

The standard review plan that the NRC has issued to provide guidance to applicants for a design certification is 4,500 pages long. The average application is about 15,000 to 20,000 pages. Producing each page requires several hours worth of engineering and technical labor to ensure technical accuracy of the numbers and words. The government’s review of each page costs $273 per hour at this year’s rates.

After all of those bits are reviewed (we will be submitting PDF’s, not actual pages) plus all additional Requests for Additional Information are answered, we will finally have permission to START building.

Our current timeline shows the first unit in operation by the end of 2020, but the NRC chairman, an Ed Markey and Harry Reid protege, just told the Washington Post that his agency will have to slow down its review of licenses because it does not have enough resources to pay for a sufficient staff for an efficient process. (Today’s Atomic Insights will most likely have some additional information about that.)

Remember, our design is simply a refinement of currently well proven light water reactor technology used to produce steam for a very well proven Rankine cycle heat engine.

Now, Mr. Free Market advocate, do you understand why a nuclear fission heat engine that uses almost exactly the same kind of machinery as a fossil fuel combustion heat engine might cost several times more than it should in initial capital investment largely BECAUSE the fossil fuel-influenced US government has layered so much restraining regulation that I personally feel a little like Gulliver waking up in the land of the Lilliputians.

Note: I speak only for myself and not for my employer.

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