Obama's Exelon ties merit close look

January 25, 2008|By JAY HANCOCK

Pay no attention to whether Sen. Barack Obama's ties to Exelon Corp. might make him sympathetic to storing nuclear waste in Nevada. That argument, aired before that state's Democratic caucuses last week, is a sideshow.

A bigger question is how Obama's Exelon links might influence his broader electricity policy at the most critical period for U.S. electricity since the 1930s. Exelon, the Illinois version of Baltimore's Constellation Energy, is one of the country's biggest megawatt producers, the largest nuclear plant operator and a huge Obama backer through its executives and employees.

Would a President Obama try to reform interstate electricity markets that have soaked consumers in Maryland and other deregulated states, inadequately invested in the future and unjustifiably enriched Exelon, Constellation and other companies? Or would he maintain the Bush administration's blind eye toward evidence of wholesale-electricity market failure, irregularity and price gouging?

Consumer groups say he had a great record of backing the little guy against utilities when he was in the Illinois Legislature. Obama's spokespeople talk a good game about what he would do in the White House. But money talks louder than words, and it's worth looking at his Exelon ties more closely.

Of course, other candidates have pocketed plenty of electric greenbacks.

People connected with Constellation, parent of Baltimore Gas and Electric, have given to most major presidential contenders - Democrat and Republican.

Constellation boss Mayo Shattuck gave $2,300 each to Republicans Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani, according to a database kept by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Those associated with NRG Energy, another electricity giant, have given nearly $70,000 to Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But the Exelon-Obama link is especially strong. Exelon employees and others close to the company have given almost $195,000 to Obama, according to the latest records. Exelon is surpassed among corporate Obama donors by only Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Lehman Brothers and a couple of other companies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

One of Obama's biggest fundraising "bundlers," packaging money from multiple individuals, is Frank M. Clark, chairman of Commonwealth Edison, the big Illinois utility owned by Exelon. Exelon director John W. Rogers Jr., chief of mutual fund company Ariel Capital Management, also has given thousands to Obama.

There are other reasons to ask if an Obama administration might be too sympathetic to big electricity.

Last year Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, frequently described as Obama's mentor, single-handedly killed a bill that would have extended price caps for customers of Commonwealth Edison and other utilities.

When he was Bill Clinton's energy secretary, Obama campaign co-chair Federico Pena vigorously promoted electricity deregulation, promised it would save consumers money and - according to a 2002 story in The Washington Times - personally urged Enron crook Kenneth Lay to lobby the president on the matter.

Exelon's chief lobbyist, Elizabeth A. Moler, was Pena's deputy at the Energy Department.

As a new member of the Illinois Senate in 1997, Obama voted for an electricity-deregulation bill that his staff says was supported by consumer groups and was far less than what power providers wanted. Nevertheless, just as in Maryland, deregulation set the stage for price increases beyond what can be explained by higher costs for generation fuels such as coal and natural gas.

David Kolata, executive director of the Illinois Citizens Utility Board, which represents residential utility customers, praises Obama's record on electricity and other consumer issues.

"He was one of our strongest allies in Springfield," Kolata says. "I can't remember a time when he was not on our side."

Obama once crossed his mentor, Jones, to oppose a bill increasing what incumbent phone companies could charge competitors leasing their lines, Kolata said. Phone outfits lobbied heavily for the measure, and "almost all Senate Democrats were convinced or forced to vote for it," he said. "State Sen. Obama sided with the consumer on that."

To hear his spokespeople tell it, Obama thinks deregulation has gone too far and Washington has taken its eye off the ball.

"Obama believes that, due to a lack of oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, consumers have unrightfully been forced to deal with high spikes in electricity prices," says spokesman Ben LaBolt. He also "supports stepping up regulation of utility companies," as well as increasing home-heating assistance with a windfall-profit tax on oil companies, LaBolt said.

Part of Obama's Exelon connection may demonstrate old-fashioned ethnic politics as much as corporate connections. Rogers and Clark are part of Illinois' black elite and would probably back Obama no matter what their business interests.

But the connections are there. The money is on the table, and the stakes are enormous. FERC, which regulates wholesale electricity, has repeatedly ignored allegations of price manipulation by Exelon and other generating companies, leaving states to do what they can.

Last year Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan accused Exelon and another company of overpricing electricity to achieve "a massive transfer of money" from consumers. Exelon agreed to pay an $800 million settlement.

"Five million Illinois residents are unnecessarily paying electricity prices that are double the actual cost of generating electricity and 40 percent higher than electricity prices in the wholesale electricity markets," Madigan complained. "Our investigation turned up disturbing evidence of price manipulation."

It's hard to imagine an Obama FERC including anybody like Lisa Madigan.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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