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Cogentrix reportedly on auction block

The company's vice president says plans to build plant in Jefferson County will move forward despite speculation
By Troy Foster
   News Editor
   Cogentrix, the power company that intends to build a 980-megawatt plant in Jefferson County near Grizzly Mountain, has put itself up for sale, a wire service has reported.
   Citing anonymous sources, the Reuters news agency reported last week that the North Carolina-based company owned by George Lewis and his family is up for grabs at an estimated cost between $1.5 and $2 billion.
   Cogentrix Vice President Frank Erwin neither confirmed nor denied the report when reached at his North Carolina office by The Pioneer Friday, saying it was company policy not to comment on the matter.
   "It's not unusual that there's speculation about our company," he said. "Cogentrix is a very successful privately held company and most of the other companies in our industry are publicly held so that always leads to speculation."
   Reuters reported that the investment bank Goldman Sachs & Co. had been hired by the company to look for a buyer. Citing the same anonymous sources, the news agency also reported that three power companies were considering purchase: El Paso, Dominion Resources and Dynergy.
   Erwin said the rumors would not get in the way of Cogentrix's current effort to bring its natural gas-fired, steam-generating power plant to Jefferson County along with the estimated 25-30 jobs it will create.
   "We have committed to push this project forward and we are going to see it through," said Erwin, who is visiting Jefferson County today through Friday speaking to certain groups.
   Meanwhile, local opponents of Cogentrix have stepped up their efforts. Two groups, STOP COGENTRIX and Friends of Central Oregon, have engaged in a letter-writing campaign to the Energy Facility Siting Council and other agencies asking them to reject Cogentrix's application, which has not yet been given to the Oregon Office of Energy. STOP COGENTRIX has even established a telephone update hot-line.
   The groups have also called upon the Madras-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, the county commissioners and Mayor Rick Allen to participate in a debate over the proposal, which they suggest should be moderated by a local high school teacher.
   The city council and county commissioners have endorsed the the power plant's arrival and offered Cogentrix a five-year tax break to draw it to Jefferson County. The chamber's board of directors maintain that they are neither for or against it -- although Cogentrix opponents quickly note that a Jan. 5 letter of support from Mayor Allen and Jefferson County Chair Janet Brown to the power company is written on Chamber of Commerce letterhead.
   Mary Zemke of STOP COGENTRIX said the two groups have been concerned at elected officials' so-called "reluctance" to speak publicly about their support. And in light of Cogentrix's rumored sale, Zemke said, "Now they need to take a careful look at this because the promises made by Cogentrix may not be fulfilled."
   Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Parrish Van Wert said a public forum to present the power plant's specs has been in the works for a long time, but before Cogentrix's application is turned in the true facts -- like how much water the plant would actually draw from the ground -- are still unclear.
   "The board (of directors) is squarely behind learning more about the economic potential. It's what we do," Van Wert said. "Our mission is to facilitate the activities of discovery and sometimes those activities include waiting for the facts to be known."
   Once Cogentrix's application is received by the state office of energy, Van Wert said the chamber will schedule its public forum, with Clint Jacks of the Oregon State University Extension Office as the planned moderator.
   But before Cogentrix can submit its application, which had been expected early this month, Jefferson County commissioners must complete their land-use review, which is being slowed by controversial proposals to change zoning laws on farmland and rangeland.
   Cogentrix wholly or partly owns 30 power producing plants in 14 states. If built, its Jefferson County plant could generate enough electricity to power 1 million homes.
   After the county finishes its work and Cogentrix submits its application, the company's immediate fate will rest with the Energy Facility Siting Council -- a seven-member group of volunteers appointed by the governor, whose responsibility is to make sure large energy facilities are located, built and operated in ways that protect the environment and public health.