Power Politics

How one company’s wheeling and dealing brought the energy crisis into your life.

When L.E. Norman opened his monthly utility bill from the San Antonio City Public Service Board last June he couldn’t believe his eyes. Yes, the figures were in the correct column, all right, and they indeed read $101.97. But it had to be a mistake. His May bill had been only $32.93, and even that was a substantial increase over the March amount of $20.68. How could his bill have tripled in one month, quintupled in only three? Other San Antonians besieged City Hall with similar questions; to their dismay they learned there had been no mistake. Worse, they were told bluntly that their bills would continue to soar; another increase could be expected by August and still others would follow.

Austin was next, then Corpus Christi. Utility rates in both cities jumped markedly during the summer, stayed high all winter, and will certainly climb even higher during the hot months ahead. (An Austin-based engineer for the Lower Colorado River Authority, which provides electricity for rural Central Texas, predicts it will cost nearly $300 per month to keep his all-electric home functioning this summer.) Nor has the rest of the state escaped the malaise spreading like a plague from South Texas. Natural gas rates will rise in Fort Worth beginning May 1, while Dallas and Houston are fighting delaying actions against inevitable increases. Nothing, absolutely nothing, indicates that utility rates will decrease or even level off; on the contrary, all economic and political signs suggest that the situation will continue to worsen.

These cities, and the more than four million Texans who live in them, have one thing in common: all depend to some degree on a single company for the natural gas which heats their homes and generates their electricity. That company is the giant Coastal States Gas Corporation, an enterprise which—before it helped bring the energy crisis home to Texas—was one of the great success stories of American business. Today the company is fighting for its very existence; the value of its common stock has long ago collapsed, and its assets are threatened by lawsuits totaling more than a billion dollars. Behind it all is Oscar Wyatt, Coastal’s founder and chairman of the board. Wyatt is tireless, innovative, daring, charismatic—a

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