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Commerce nominee John Bryson fought to keep Edison out of bankruptcy

Bryson was Edison's CEO during the California electricity crisis a decade ago. Unlike others, he emerged with his reputation burnished instead of tarnished.

July 16, 2011|By Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times
  • Former Edison International CEO John Bryson prepares to testify before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in June during his confirmation hearing to be the next Commerce Secretary.
Former Edison International CEO John Bryson prepares to testify before… (Jim Lo Scalzo, European…)

Reporting from Washington — John Bryson's work life has bounced from environmental activist to California regulator to utility company executive and now to nominee for Commerce secretary. But his career so far has been defined by the one stop he never made — Bankruptcy Court.

As chief executive of Edison International, Bryson fought tirelessly to keep the company from collapsing during the California electricity crisis a decade ago. He went on TV to beg customers to conserve energy. And he forged controversial deals with state officials to avoid the fate of fellow utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co., drawing the wrath of consumer groups for locking in high electricity rates to keep Edison out of bankruptcy.

Within months, the corporate parent of Southern California Edison returned to profitability. And, unlike other key players in the crisis, Bryson emerged with his reputation burnished instead of tarnished.

"At the end of the day, John got most of what he wanted. The company did not have to go into bankruptcy," said then-Gov. Gray Davis, who was involved in lengthy negotiations with Bryson over Edison's fate. "He made it very clear he didn't want to go that route. He said that a zillion times."

But such success isn't helping Bryson win Senate confirmation. Some Republicans aren't impressed with his business credentials, branding him as an environmental extremist and vowing to block his confirmation.

Bryson's supporters counter that his wide-ranging experience and actions guiding Edison through the crisis highlighted the skills that would make him an excellent Commerce secretary — determination, diplomacy, an ability to quickly grasp complex issues and steadiness under fire.

"There was an unflappable quality to him, cool under pressure," said Robert A. Iger, chief executive of Walt Disney Co., where Bryson served as a director at the time of the crisis. "I never got a sense that John, at least outwardly, was feeling the stress."

In a Senate hearing last month, Bryson, 67, who retired from Edison in 2008 after 18 years as CEO, said keeping Edison out of bankruptcy was the "single toughest challenge I've ever addressed."

"We stuck together as a company and we kept the lights on under impossible circumstances for at least two years," he told senators. "And in the end, I think we were proud … for what we were able to do without going into bankruptcy as others did."

Administration officials declined an interview request for Bryson, following standard policy of preventing nominees from speaking to the media until they are confirmed.

He would face new challenges should he be confirmed to lead the Commerce Department. With the economy struggling, companies hesitant to hire and the Obama administration viewed as unfriendly to business, the normally low-profile position has taken on added importance.

But Bryson faces a surprisingly tough confirmation fight.

On Tuesday, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) placed a hold on the nomination, a procedural hurdle that will take 60 votes from Bryson supporters to overcome.

Nearly all Senate Republicans already had vowed to block the confirmation of any nominee for Commerce secretary in a dispute over pending free-trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. Agreements, though, could be reached in the coming days.

Some conservatives have criticized Bryson for his involvement with companies that depend on government regulation or subsidies. Those include Edison, a regulated utility, and BrightSource Energy, a solar-energy firm whose board Bryson chairs. A Wall Street Journal editorial dubbed him "Secretary of Subsidy."

And some Republicans have rebuked him for being one of six co-founders in 1970 of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an aggressive organization that often has sued companies for allegedly violating environmental regulations. Bryson also has come under fire for favorable comments he made in 2009 about a Democratic House bill to address climate change.

"His approach … toward affordable energy is harmful to American businesses," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who called the NRDC one of the nation's "most extreme environmental organizations."

Bryson did a good job promoting energy efficiency and electric transportation, but "the last thing you could call him is an environmental extremist," said V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in Sacramento.

"He bought coal plants. He successfully blocked power plant controls that should have been installed 10 years earlier. And he actively resisted renewables until the end of his career" at Edison, White said.

Bryson started out as an environmental lawyer. But the people who helped him found the NRDC thought he was destined for more.

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