Power shortages. Rolling blackouts. Skyrocketing utility bills.
California's 2000-2001 power disaster has made "energy" a national front-burner issue. |
In "Blackout." FRONTLINE and The New York Times join forces to
investigate the story behind the California energy crisis.
Correspondent Lowell Bergman goes head to head with energy industry CEOs and
state and federal officials to uncover what's at the heart of the growing
energy crisis, and who's profiting. Among those interviewed for the one-hour
documentary are: Vice President Dick
Cheney; California Governor Gray Davis; Enron CEO Jeff Skilling; Curt Hebert, chairman of the
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission(FERC); and consumer advocates.
"The bottom line is we've launched ourselves into a great social and
economic experiment that no one knows for sure will work," says Bergman. "No
one, either Democrat or Republican, opposed overturning the old regulated
order, and now no one thinks it is possible to turn back before summer comes
with projected heat waves, rate hikes, and possible blackouts."
Amid the growing energy crisis, this report tracks the emergence of a new kind of megacorporation:
giant, national holding companies that trade electricity and gas much like any
other commodity. With names like Enron, Dynegy, Reliant, and El Paso -- and
with close ties to high-ranking Republican and Democratic officials -- these energy
traders have seen their profits explode in recent years.
At the same time, California's electricity costs for the coming
year may, by one estimate, reach $70 billion -- nearly 10 times what they were
just two years ago. That fact prompted California Gov. Gray Davis to
brand these energy giants "pirates."
It's a label that is hotly refuted by Jeff Skilling, CEO of energy
trader Enron Corporation, which now ranks seventh on the Fortune 500 and is the
largest business operating through the Internet today.
"We are working to create open, competitive, fair markets," Skilling
says. "And in open, competitive, fair markets prices are lower and customers
get better service. We are the good guys -- we are on the side of the angels."
Skilling, like many critics, blames the
California crisis on the state's flawed 1996 attempt to deregulate
the power industry. "Unfortunately, they agreed to a bad market structure," he
says. "... [It] was like it was designed by the Politburo in the Soviet Union."
The program also explores why
the federal government refused for months to intervene in the
California crisis, as well as the rationale for
dismantling the old system of utility regulation. In addition, "Blackout" examines
the relationship between big power companies which have profited from deregulation
and top government officials, including political appointees who run FERC.
In the end, some observers say this growing energy crisis could result
in a rollback of deregulation and a grassroots push for more public power.
"They can huff and they can puff and they can say what they want to
ideologically," says David
Freeman, energy advisor to Gov. Davis. "Private power has been an
abysmal failure as far as the consumer is concerned in California in 2000 and
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