Federal regulators have amped up their investigations of businesses involved in U.S. energy markets in recent years. This week the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved a settlement between its Office of Enforcement and Gila River Power LLC over market manipulation claims, requiring Gila River to pay a punitive fine of $2.5 million, and disgorge unjust profits of $911,553 plus interest. Notably, this settlement represents the first time that a market participant accused of manipulating power markets has admitted to unlawful energy trades.
Gila River is a subsidiary of Entegra Power Group LLC. Entegra owns and operates four combined cycle power plants capable of producing about 3,300 MW of power. Two of these plants are located at the 2,200 MW Gila River Power Station in Arizona, while the other four are located at the Union Power Station in Arkansas. Entegra markets energy from these facilities to customers in the southeastern and southwestern U.S.
In the settlement agreement, Gila River admitted to using energy transactions known as "wheeling-through transactions" between July 2009 and October 2010 to manipulate prices in markets operated by the California Independent System Operator. Because congestion on the transmission grid limited both the amount of power Gila River could import into California as well as the price it could get for that power, the company designed its transactions to avoid creating congestion so that it would receive a higher price on a higher quantity of energy imports. This strategy involved claiming that it was simply passing power between two points outside California over transmission facilities located inside California, even though its transactions lacked a resource and a load outside the California markets as required by the CAISO tariff.
Under the FERC's enforcement procedures and penalty guidelines, the FERC assessed a base penalty amount based on its powers under the Federal Power Act, which allows it to levy fines of $1,000,000 per day for each violation. The FERC then considered mitigating factors, including Gila River's cooperation in the enforcement investigation and its acceptance of responsibility for its violations. Based on these factors, and negotiations between Gila River's legal counsel and the FERC's Office of Enforcement, the parties settled on a fine of $2.5 million, and disgorge unjust profits of $911,553 plus interest.
While the Gila River settlement represents the first time an accused company has admitted market manipulation, FERC has used its enforcement powers more extensively in recent years. In fiscal 2012, FERC approved nine settlement agreements entered into by Enforcement for total civil penalty payments of more than $148 million and disgorgement of more than $119 million plus interest.