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July 27th, 2005 The Nose | The Nose
 

STEN'S POWER OUTAGE

     
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Erik Sten
The Nose woke up mad Friday morning. That's not too different from most days, except this time, he had a reason for kicking the dog and screaming in the shower. Namely, Enron's big F- YOU to the City of Portland when the company said it wouldn't sell us Portland General Electric.

The Nose is a free-market kind of guy. But utilities don't operate in the free market. They are all-powerful monopolies providing us the juice we need. For those reasons, the Schnozz thinks public power is a great idea. For one, public power operates just fine all over the country. For two, the concept annoys the right people, including The Oregonian and the Nose's cousin Trev, who runs a blog called Liberalshatefreedom.com.

Most of all, the Nose is convinced that if PGE aimed to protect ratepayers rather than maximize shareholder profits, he'd save enough on the power bill to upgrade his tequila to Sauza Gold.

So why didn't the deal fly? The City was quick to blame Enron, saying CEO Stephen Cooper acted in bad faith when he short-circuited negotiations led by City Commissioner Erik Sten with Mayor Tom Potter's blessing.

The Nose agrees that, in walking away from a city bid of nearly $3 billion, Enron pretty much telegraphed plans to rake in even more cash from PGE ratepayers.

But as convenient as it is to cast Enron as the villain, the Nose must suggest that someone else deserves some heat, too: Sten.

What? It almost seems cruel to blame the commissioner who brought the city to the brink of a deal. But Sten blew the very David vs. Goliath fight he picked.

The past several months should have been a campaign about the virtues of public power, the $100 million savings a year it would bring and how Portlander, we're going to kick Enron out of Oregon-with help from regional allies and business people smart enough to get what's going on. And ain't no one gonna stop us!

Instead, the story line in the public mind ran a little like this:

Those left-wing lunatics at City Hall are trying to take over the power company, argle-bargle argle-bargle, Water Bureau...Sten...$3 billion... argle-bargle, hrumph...

The problem: Sten, who deserves a medal for kicking off hot pursuit of PGE back when Potter was still an obscure ex-cop on a recumbent bike, remained the bid's frontman far too long. Fairly or not, City Hall's longest-serving commissioner has acquired many enemies, including a faction of business types laboring under the delusion that he's Che Guevara without the accent.

Sten never managed to neutralize his foes by moving someone else front-and-center. Many business interests-including, the Nose hears, some big kahunas-"privately" support the idea of public power. Sten couldn't persuade them to sign on in public, however. And he never drummed up enough political support outside city limits to convince PGE's metro-area customers that public power wasn't a plot hatched by pointy-headed urban eco-Bolsheviks.

Sten's lack of high-profile allies gave public power's enemies too much room. Petition drives and various anti-public-power committees created a mirage of gathering grassroots opposition-just the cover Enron needed to pull out. The Oregonian's ed board could sling mud; and state legislators could monkey around with their own half-baked PGE proposals.

Hey, give the guy credit for taking a shot. And remember, the state's Public Utility Commission may still reject Enron's current plan to redistribute PGE's stock to creditors. ("It'll be just like the old PGE...trust us...these are not the droids you're looking for....")

You can bet Sten will go loaded for bear when PUC takes the matter up next month. It's just too bad that the quest he ran, for practical purposes, as a one-man crusade, isn't coming to a more triumphant end.

 
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