The fall of Enron sounds the death knell for one of the great rackets of the last decade: Green Seals of Approval, whereby some outfit like the Natural Resources Defense Council or the Environmental Defense Fund would issue testimonials to the enviro-conscience and selfless devotion to the public weal of corporations like Enron. These green seals of approval were part and parcel of the neoliberal pitch, that fuddy-duddy regulation should yield to modern, "market-oriented" inducements to environmental problems, to which indeed NRDC and EDF were always the prime salesfolk of neoliberal remedies for environmental problems.

In fact, NRDC was socked deep into the Enron lobby machine. Here 's what happened:

In 1997, high-flying Enron found itself in a pitched battle in Oregon, where it planned to acquire Portland General Electric, Oregon's largest public utility. Warning that Enron's motives were of a highly predatory nature, the staff of the state's Public Utility Commission opposed the merger. They warned that an Enron takeover would mean less ability to protect the environment, increased insecurity for PGE's workers and, in all likelihood, soaring prices. There was also the matter of responsibility -- financial and supervisory -- for the decommissioning of the Trojan nuclear plant.

Other critics argued that Enron's actual plan was to cannibalize PGE, in particular, its hydropower, which Enron would sell into California's energy market.

But at the very moment when such protests threatened to balk Enron of its prize, into town rode NRDC's top energy commissar, Ralph Cavanagh, Heinz environmental genius award pinned to his armor and flaunting his ties to the Energy Foundation, a San Francisco-based outfit providing the financial wattage for many of the citizen and environmental groups that work on utility and enviro issues.

Cavanagh lost no time in whipping the refractory greens of Oregon into line. In concert with Enron, the NRDC man put together a memo of understanding that pledged that the company would lend financial support to some of these groups' pet projects. But Cavanagh still had some arduous politicking ahead. An OK for the merger had to come from the PUC, whose staff was adamantly opposed. So, on Valentine's Day, 1997, Cavanagh showed up at a hearing in Salem, Ore., to plead Enron's case.

Addressing the three PUC commissioners, he averred that this was "the first time I've ever spoken in support of a utility merger." If so, it was the quickest transition for virginity to seasoned performance in the history of intellectual prostitution. Cavanagh flaunted the delights of an embrace with Enron: "What we've put before you with this company is, we believe, a robust assortment of public benefits for the citizens of Oregon which would not emerge without the merger."

With a warble in his throat, Cavanagh moved into rhetorical high gear: "The Oregonian asks the question, 'Can you trust Enron?' On stewardship issues and public benefit issues I've dealt with this company for a decade, often in the most contentious circumstances, and the answer is, yes, you can trust Enron on those matters."

Cavanagh won the day for the Houston-based energy giant. The PUC approved the merger, and it wasn't long before the darkest suspicions of Enron's plans were vindicated. The company raised rates, tried to soak the ratepayers with the cost of its failed Trojan nuclear reactor and moved to put some of the company's most valuable assets on the block. Enron's motive had indeed been to get access to the hydropower of the Northwest, the cheapest in the country, selling it into the California market, the priciest, and, now, in part because of Cavanagh's campaigning for deregulation, ripest energy prize awaiting exploitation.

Then, after two years, the company Cavanagh had hailed as being "engaged, motivated and committed" put PGE up on the auction block. Pending sale, Enron has been using PGE as collateral for loans approved by the federal bankruptcy judge.

Enron is best known as George Bush's prime financial backer in his presidential quest. But it was a bipartisan purveyor of patronage: To its right, the conservative Texas senator Phil Gramm, whose wife Wendy sat on Enron's board; to its left, the liberal Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee. Today, some House Republicans want to treat the Enron collapse as a criminal matter, while Democrats have been talking in vaguer terms about cleaning up accounting rules and plugging holes in the regulatory system. The inability of Enron's employees to sell company stock from their 401Ks while higher-ups absconded with millions may doom Bush's promised onslaught on Social Security. There are many morals in Enron's collapse, and the role of that green seal of approval should not be forgotten.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.