Texan’s Big Bet on a Fossil-Fuel Future for California

Source: By Ivan Penn and Thomas Kaplan, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, April 2, 2019

California has positioned itself as a leader in the fight against climate change. It leads the nation by far in solar power. And it is working to reduce carbon emissions throughout the energy sector, with a goal of making the electricity grid carbon-free within a generation.

But its clean-energy goals are colliding with a Texas billionaire who has staked a fossil-fuel claim in California and is aiming to get federal regulators on his side.

The Texan, Andrew Beal, parlayed financial and real estate deals into an estimated personal worth of more than $8 billion and a bank bearing his name. Along the way, he became a business associate of President Trump, providing financing for Mr. Trump’s Atlantic City casinos, and has been an economic adviser and a major donor.

He has also been involved in some of the single largest hands of poker ever played in Las Vegas, against Olympian talent, and has often come away a winner.

“He’s the smartest guy in the room, every room he goes to,” said Dary Stone, a former member of the Texas Finance Commission, the state’s banking regulator, who has known Mr. Beal for decades.

Now Mr. Beal, 66, is betting that he can turn back the inroads of alternative energy. He is arguing before federal regulators that California policies discriminate against generators powered by fossil fuels like natural gas and coal as the state promotes sources like solar and wind power.

Mr. Beal’s interest arises from his 2017 purchase — through Beal Bank — of the La Paloma natural gas power plant in California’s Central Valley, which had fallen into bankruptcy as the state faced a glut of generating power.

The La Paloma natural-gas plant in California’s Central Valley. Andrew Beal, who now controls the plant, argues that California discriminates against generators powered by natural gas and coal.Joel Angel Juarez for The New York Times

The La Paloma natural-gas plant in California’s Central Valley. Andrew Beal, who now controls the plant, argues that California discriminates against generators powered by natural gas and coal.Joel Angel Juarez for The New York Times

Mr. Beal is one of Mr. Trump’s biggest financial backers, having spent about $10 million on Trump-related contributions since 2015, according to Federal Election Commission records. It is not known what role, if any, Mr. Beal’s relationship with the president could have on the regulatory decision.

But a decision in Mr. Beal’s favor could further the administration’s energy agenda, giving new life to coal, natural gas and nuclear power throughout the United States. It could also upend California’s recently enacted mandate for 100 percent carbon-free electricity as well as efforts nationwide to curb carbon emissions.

Mr. Beal declined to be interviewed for this article.

Opponents of his complaint fear a fossil-fuel resurgence and higher consumer costs as well as increased carbon emissions at a time of grueling heat waves, record droughts, catastrophic wildfires and devastating hurricanes that are being cited as signs of climate change.

“I see La Paloma as a frontal assault,” Loretta Lynch, a lawyer and former president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said of the bid before federal regulators. “La Paloma is throwing a stick of dynamite into California’s policies.”

A Regulatory Opening

If you feel the planet is at stake, you might cast Mr. Beal as a villain of big-screen proportions. But those who know him see something simpler: the calculations of a man who likes big bets.

He placed his wager on La Paloma when Beal Bank, a creditor, acquired the plant out of bankruptcy with a $150 million credit bid — a bid made with debt it was owed. Demand for the plant’s output had declined as new solar and wind power came online and prices began to fall in the electricity market.

Looking to change that equation, Mr. Beal turned to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The agency regulates services like interstate power transmission and the wholesale market for electricity, and approves acquisitions like Mr. Beal’s takeover of La Paloma.

The commission has recently shown signs that it might be sympathetic to fossil-fuel interests. In a decision involving the nation’s largest wholesale energy market, which includes the Mid-Atlantic region, regulators determined in June that clean-energy providers had been receiving unfair subsidies that allowed them to submit low bids to power purchasers. The commission ordered solar, wind and some nuclear sources to increase their bids, putting conventional power plants on a firmer footing.

The La Paloma complaint builds on that argument. It contends that subsidies and mandates for solar and wind power — including rebates for residential solar-panel programs and requirements that growing percentages of utility-scale systems come from carbon-free sources — have left California dependent on energy sources that are unreliable for round-the-clock power.

Critics say Mr. Beal wants the commission to create a subsidy for fossil-fuel plants, paid for by utility customers in their rates, and effectively remove the cost advantage that renewable-energy plants now have. Fossil-fuel plants are better able to ensure a continuous supply of electricity because storage capacity is not yet sufficient to keep solar or wind energy flowing when the sun isn’t shining or the wind abates. And one of the commission’s primary responsibilities is to ensure the reliability of the grid.

Opposition to the Beal effort has poured in from energy markets in the Eastern and Northeastern United States, California regulators, the state attorney general, environmentalists and consumer groups. They are troubled by the potential impact of a decision siding with Mr. Beal and the possibility that regulators could apply it nationwide.

Despite his low profile, there is little question of Mr. Beal’s political leanings. He created a pro-Trump super PAC, Save America From Its Government, which published a 2016 newspaper advertisement that was headlined “Obamacare: A Crash Course in Government Inefficiency” and asked, “Is America a communist country?” During the presidential campaign that year, Mr. Trump listed him as one of his economic advisers.

And in a postelection interview with The Dallas Morning News, while describing himself as “a Democrat on virtually all social issues,” Mr. Beal said Mr. Trump’s victory was “the first time in my lifetime where a step in the right direction has been taken to reduce the government and get it out of people’s lives.”

“That’s all we need to thrive,” he said.

But Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at the nonprofit consumer-advocacy organization Public Citizen, said he had not seen evidence of Mr. Beal’s pursuing an ideological agenda in the La Paloma case so much as a financial one.

“I see it as his self-interest,” Mr. Slocum said. “If it were broader-based, he would be funding a group that would make some sort of filing in all markets. Beal’s been limited. It’s all about the bottom line here.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected Mr. Beal’s complaint in November, saying La Paloma had failed to identify any specific unjust or unreasonable fees that harmed fossil-fuel plants. But he is appealing, and the panel’s makeup is changing.

In early December, the Senate confirmed a new commission member, Bernard L. McNamee, an Energy Department official who oversaw an abortive effort to shore up the coal and nuclear industries. The panel is now split evenly between Democratic and Republican members, with another vacancy for Mr. Trump to fill.

‘He Sees Something’

To those who have known Mr. Beal, acquiring La Paloma and filing the complaint with federal regulators is not just happenstance.

“I promise you, he sees something,” said Mr. Stone, the former Texas banking regulator, whose children grew up with Mr. Beal’s children. “Just bet on it.”

Mr. Stone was a member of the Texas Finance Commission when Mr. Beal opened Beal Bank in 1988. He said he had watched Mr. Beal develop over the years into a crafty businessman who went against conventional thinking.

While Wall Street giants were still issuing loans before the 2008 mortgage crisis, Mr. Beal sat on the sideline. He is said to have been convinced that credit markets were bound for disaster.

“He quits lending,” Mr. Stone said. “He quits buying. He doesn’t buy back in. On any number of times he’ll say, ‘Things are too high.’” In the aftermath, he went on a buying spree.

A math whiz who dropped out of college, Mr. Beal was intrigued by one of the great mysteries of mathematics, Fermat’s last theorem, named for the 17th-century French lawyer and mathematician Pierre de Fermat. Mathematicians endeavored for centuries to prove Fermat’s assertion that an + bn = cn is impossible where a, b, c and n are positive integers and n is greater than 2. A solution was finally found in 1994.

Mr. Beal put forward a more general form of the theorem and issued a challenge to prove or disprove the assertion. He offered a prize, now $1 million, that has yet to be claimed. The problem has come to be known as the Beal conjecture.

“Contrarian businesspeople and entrepreneurs really aren’t risk takers,” Mr. Stone said. “They’re just really good at calibrating risk.”

That skill has been in evidence in the building of a fortune that has put Mr. Beal, as of Friday, at No. 190 in the world on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. It has also helped him at the poker table.

For a few years, beginning in 2001, Mr. Beal won and lost millions in games against champions like Doyle and Todd Brunson and Phil Ivey — referred to as the “Tiger Woods of poker” — who came to be known as The Corporation because they pooled or borrowed money in an effort to vanquish him at the tables. The competition was documented in a book, “The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time.”

One of the players, Howard Lederer, who has lost favor in the poker world in the wake of a federal investigation of an electronic poker operation he had ownership in, said Mr. Beal had proved his intellect in the one-on-one games.

“He was new to the poker world,” Mr. Lederer said. “He’s an amateur player, but he got better really fast. I was really impressed with his intellect.”

Mr. Beal notched some wins using his intellect and deep pockets, but it was Mr. Ivey who in the end ensured that the Texas billionaire did not get the better of The Corporation. Over three days in February 2006, Mr. Ivey reportedly won $16.6 million in games against Mr. Beal.

It was a rare setback.

The Trump Connection

As businessmen, Mr. Trump and Mr. Beal have been both allies and adversaries.

Their relationship dates back to at least 2004, when Beal Bank supplied financing for Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts as it went through bankruptcy. The company, later known as Trump Entertainment Resorts, operated Atlantic City properties like the Trump Taj Mahal.

Beal Bank supplied financing to the Trump casino business again in 2007. When Trump Entertainment Resorts filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, Mr. Beal became a major player in the legal wrangling that ensued.

At first, Mr. Trump and Mr. Beal teamed up in an attempt to buy Trump Entertainment Resorts out of bankruptcy, with Mr. Trump vowing to “make this company great again.”

But bondholders objected, and Mr. Trump ended up switching sides and reaching an agreement with them. Mr. Beal then tried to acquire Trump Entertainment Resorts on his own, eventually joining forces with the billionaire investor Carl C. Icahn, another business figure who years later would support Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.

“This Beal guy is a tough negotiator,” Vincent J. Intrieri, an Icahn lieutenant, testified in bankruptcy court, recalling how the partnership came together. “I thought we were tough. But this guy makes us look like little kids.”

Mr. Trump and the bondholders ultimately prevailed.

Mr. Beal was close enough to the Trump family that he attended the wedding of Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka in 2009, according to a news report that year. And when Mr. Trump ran for president, Mr. Beal was an eager supporter. He has been among the biggest donors to Trump Victory, one of the president’s fund-raising vehicles in support of a re-election bid.

Mr. Trump himself boasted of having Mr. Beal’s support. Just before the critical Super Tuesday nominating contests in 2016, his campaign announced that he had been endorsed by Mr. Beal and another wealthy business figure, Thomas J. Barrack Jr. of Colony Capital, a real estate investment firm.

At a rally in Dallas that June, Mr. Trump mentioned Mr. Beal in his speech and suggested he was the kind of person who could play an important role in a Trump administration.

“You take somebody like Andy Beal, you put him in charge of China: ‘O.K., Andy, do me a favor, renegotiate our trade deal,’” Mr. Trump told the crowd. “You know what we can all do? Go home, relax, have dinner.” He later included Mr. Beal on a list of economic advisers to his campaign.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Beal met in December 2016 as Mr. Trump was preparing to take office, Mr. Trump’s transition team said at the time. It is not clear what they discussed, or whether the two men have been in contact since then. The White House declined to comment.

Fair Play or Fiasco?

Mr. Beal’s representatives insist that his objectives in the case before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are limited.

In a response to opponents of the complaint, lawyers for La Paloma said the goal was not “a bailout, a subsidy, preferential treatment or any guaranteed level of profits.” They said the complaint aimed to create a fair market and ensure system reliability, not to impede California’s transition to a carbon-free electric grid.

“La Paloma is asking for an even playing field and an opportunity to compete in a just and reasonable and not unduly discriminatory market,” they wrote.

But for California’s energy goals, Mr. Beal’s success would be a stunning setback.

“La Paloma is manufacturing a problem that does not exist in order to obtain a policy result that favors it,” said Ms. Lynch, the former California utilities commissioner.

For one thing, she said, a Beal victory would force utilities to contract with power sources that can operate at any time — like natural-gas or coal plants — whether they use that power or not. Such requirements are likely to result in oversupply and higher electricity costs because of the additional payments to operate plants, like La Paloma, that otherwise would face going out of business, she said.

“This overbuying and overpaying will mean a lot less money will be available to use to reach California’s clean-energy goals,” Ms. Lynch said, calling it “a double economic whammy” for the state.

A decision on Mr. Beal’s appeal could come within months.