SAN FRANCISCO – An unregulated division of PG&E Corp. engaged in potentially deceptive energy-trading practices during the California power crisis that drove the company’s utility into bankruptcy, according to documents filed Friday.
In its quarterly report to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, San Francisco-based PG&E said its National Energy Group participated in at least 44 transactions that created the appearance of energy trades from January 2000 through May of this year.
The illusory practice, commonly known as “washing” or “round-tripping,” involves two traders swapping the same amount of power for the same price.
PG&E said it banned the practice after uncovering the transactions during an internal investigation prompted by a request from federal energy regulators.
The “washing” technique can be used to artificially inflate revenue to improve a company’s income statement or to generate a sales commission for a trader.
If enough traders launder megawatts at the same time, it could drive up market prices, said Frank Wolak, a Stanford University economist who chairs California’s power market surveillance committee.
National Energy believes “there could have been legitimate reasons” for round-tripping, said David Mold, a spokesman for the energy trader.
Bethesda, Md.-based National Energy isn’t certain of the motive behind the transaction because all but four were initiatied by other traders, Mold said.
PG&E discovered 12 washing incidents in the Western power market during 2000 and 2001 — a period marked by soaring prices and rolling blackouts through Northern California.
The conditions inconvenienced millions of power customers and crippled PG&E’s utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy since April 2001.
National Energy doesn’t believe its washing activity contributed to the utility’s financial distress, Mold said.
“There was no financial gain for us doing this,” Mold said.
National Energy initiated four of the round-tripping trades because of a “misunderstanding,” Mold said. All the washing initiated by National Energy occurred outside the Western power market, he said.
The round-tripping transactions accounted for 0.14 percent of National Energy’s revenue from January 2000 through May 2002, according to SEC documents. National Energy handled more than 400,000 trades during the period, Mold said.
PG&E didn’t provide a precise dollar figure, but the 0.14 percentage translates into washing transactions totaling about $45 million, based on National Energy’s average monthly revenue of $1.1 billion from January 2000 through June 2002.
Even if PG&E didn’t profit from the round-tripping transactions, the activity undermined the market’s integrity, said Robert McCullough, a Portland, Ore. energy economist and consultant who has extensively studied the West’s recent power problems.
“They are fraudulent transactions that disrupt the system,” McCullough said.
Wolak said federal regulators will be hard-pressed to prove fraud unless they uncover evidence of collusion.
Washing is just one of many energy-trading techniques under the scrutiny of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and California lawmakers investigating possible collusion charges against energy traders.
Allegations of market manipulation gained support in May with the release of several memos that detailed the price-gouging strategies of Enron Corp., the nation’s largest energy trader until going bankrupt last year.
Using sinister names like “Death Star,” the Enron memos detailed a series of deceptive trading practices designed to create artificial shortages and avoid price controls.
PG&E was among the critics attacking the alleged price gouging of power wholesalers during late 2000 and early 2001.
National Energy’s unregulated activities have long irritated consumer activists, who contend PG&E built the energy wholesaler by raiding the coffers of its now-bankrupt utility.
Once viewed as PG&E’s most promising business, National Energy now is flirting with bankruptcy. The energy wholesaler landed into trouble earlier this week when Standard & Poor’s dropped its credit rating into junk territory, triggering provisions that could force National Energy to repay loans totaling $1.7 billion — more money than the energy trader could afford.
With the bankruptcy concerns hovering over National Energy, PG&E’s shares fell 95 cents to $8.81 on the New York Stock Exchange.