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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

"John was tall, outgoing, charming, confident and ambitious in the best sense of the word," wrote fellow NRDC co-founder John Adams in "A Force for Nature," a 2010 history of the organization he wrote with his wife, Patricia. "Meeting him, we immediately saw his potential for accomplishing great things, perhaps a career in politics."

Bryson stayed with the group for a few years, opening its West Coast office. He moved on to state government, heading the California State Water Resources Control Board from 1976 to 1979 and then serving as president of the California Public Utilities Commission from 1979 to 1982.

Southern California Edison hired Bryson in 1984 as a senior vice president in a move designed to bring a "new dimension" to its management, it said at the time. He rose to chief executive of the utility's parent company in 1990, and was hailed as the model for an environmentally friendly executive.

Bryson advocated for energy efficiency and renewable sources, such as solar and wind power. He also supported the flawed deregulation of the state's electricity market, said Steven Weissman, director of the Energy and Cleantech Program at the UC Berkeley law school.

That support meant Bryson played a role in the crisis that nearly bankrupted Edison.

"The fact that the company was in financial trouble during the crisis is really not so much a reflection of … the way it was managed," Weissman said. "It was an indictment of the underlying premise for deregulation as it was designed in California."

A flawed law and market manipulation by energy trading companies such as Enron Corp. caused wholesale electricity prices in California to soar, sparking the crisis. Bryson later said Edison complained about some parts of the deregulation plan when it was being drafted, but acknowledged that no one foresaw the huge rise in prices.

Unable to pass on all the higher costs to its customers, losses mounted for Edison and other utilities in early 2001. Whereas PG&E opted to file for bankruptcy, Bryson worked behind the scenes to cut a deal with state officials to save his company.

The eventual agreement with the Public Utilities Commission allowed Edison to pay off about $3.3 billion in debt it had accrued from the soaring electricity prices. But it also kept electricity rates high.

"Shareholders well may have been impressed, but consumers weren't," said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for the Utility Reform Network, a ratepayer advocacy group.

Still, Bryson earned wide praise. In 2002, with the company profitable again, Edison's board gave him a $1.35-million bonus for his leadership during the crisis.

"I think that by most estimations, and certainly by mine," said Ralph Cavanagh, NRDC's energy program co-director, "Bryson was one of the people who distinguished himself through all that."

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