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Ex-Environment Activist Will Take Helm at Edison : Utility: John Bryson co-founded Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970. Observers are watching closely.


Twenty years ago, John Bryson helped found one of the nation's most aggressive environmental organizations.

Today, the former environmental activist takes over as chairman and chief executive officer of one of Southern California's largest polluters.

The significance--and irony--of Bryson's ascendancy to the top job at Southern California Edison Co. and its corporate parent, SCECorp, has not been lost on either the business community or the environmental movement.

Members of both camps hope that Bryson will become a prototype for a new generation of top corporate executives who understand how to manage a major company in a climate of growing environmental awareness and regulation.

"John's appointment suggests that the carriers of the environmental ethic may now be able to carry out those ideas from a position of power, rather than as critics of those who hold power," said Richard E. Ayers, who was a co-founder with Bryson of the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970. Ayers now heads the group, which is known for its readiness to sue government and business to enforce environmental laws.

The choice of Bryson, who at 47 succeeds retiring Howard P. Allen, is widely viewed as an inspired public relations move for the image-conscious utility.

Bryson stressed in interviews last week that his primary loyalty is to the utility's shareholders and he cautioned that "the company is not in the business of providing (for) social needs."

"We will . . . provide electric service in a way that is very sensitive to the environment," Bryson said. "(But) there is nothing that says in every case, every environmentalist will like what we're doing. In the environmental community itself there are always disputes about one thing or another."

Bryson's rise to the top at Edison--which serves 5 million customers as the nation's largest operating electrical utility--under-scores a move among U.S. corporations to recruit executives for high-profile positions who have experience with environmental issues. For many companies this reflects a growing awareness that it makes good business sense to pay closer attention to the environment.

Government environmental regulations are getting tougher, particularly in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez and other oil spills. A negative public image on environmental issues can cost companies dearly in lost sales.

Exxon, Monsanto and other companies have added board members with environmental credentials. Even Walt Disney Co. recently created a new corporate position of vice president for environmental policy, appointing a marine biologist to the post.

Perhaps the best-known appointment came at Browning-Ferris Industries, the nation's second-largest waste management firm. The company was widely applauded when it hired William D. Ruckelshaus, two-time administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as CEO and chairman of the board in 1988. But some environmentalists have criticized Ruckelshaus' performance for falling short where environmental quality is concerned.

SCECorp, whose profits are set by the California Public Utilities Commission, earned $778 million last year on revenues of $6.9 billion. As a government-regulated utility that operates, in effect, as a monopoly, Edison is under more pressure than most companies to be sensitive to the environment.

Bryson, who joined Edison in 1984 as a senior vice president, will be put to the test as soon as he walks through the door at the company's Rosemead headquarters.

The utility is embroiled in a major controversy over its proposed $2.5-billion merger with San Diego Gas & Electric Co. Environmentalists and other critics, including state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, object to Edison's plans to shut down older power plants in San Diego and shift electricity generation to under-used facilities in the South Coast Air Basin, the nation's smoggiest urban area.

Meanwhile, criticism lingers over Edison's opposition to a far-reaching plan to bring Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties into compliance with federal clean air standards by 2007.

Edison vigorously fought the plan and spent at least $1 million on a rival proposal. The utility agreed to support the South Coast Air Quality Management District's version only after winning important financial concessions. The compromise has not yet been approved by EPA.

Bryson, whom one colleague describes as a "thoughtful, bulldog-type of man," has consistently supported Edison's position on both sensitive issues and sees no conflict with his environmentalist roots.

"The public is concerned, correctly so I think, about a healthy environment," he said. "Energy, and particularly electricity, is at the heart of the modern economy and I would say we as electric utilities have an obligation to provide that reliably, but also promote sound environmental objectives."

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