News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Warren Buffett Outbid In Race To Buy Big Piece Of Texas Electric Grid

Billionaire Warren Buffett has been outbid in his effort to buy Texas’ largest transmission utility.

San Diego-based Sempra Energy announced early Monday that it had swooped in with a roughly $18.8 billion deal to purchase Oncor, whose roughly 120,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines deliver power to more than 3 million homes and businesses in North and West Texas. 

The announcement signaled that Oncor’s parent company has abandoned the $18 billion deal that Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett’s multinational conglomerate, unveiled six weeks ago to much fanfare. Berkshire Hathaway declined to comment on the development.  

If approved, Sempra Energy’s deal could help deliver Energy Future Holdings, Oncor’s parent and Texas’ largest power conglomerate, from one of the largest corporate bankruptcies in American history. The conglomerate, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2014, is saddled with about $50 billion in debt.

“Both Sempra Energy and Oncor share more than 100 years of experience operating utilities that deliver safe, reliable energy to millions of customers,” Debra L. Reed, chairman, president and CEO of Sempra Energy, said in a statement. “We believe our agreement with Energy Future will help ensure that Texas utility customers continue to receive the outstanding electric service they have come to expect from Oncor and provide stability to Oncor’s nearly 4,000 employees.”

Sempra Energy, a Fortune 500 conglomerate, runs utilities and invests in energy infrastructure. Its companies include: San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Gas Co., Sempra South American Utilities, Sempra Mexico, Sempra Renewables and Sempra LNG & Midstream — the latter of which is building a liquefied natural gas export terminal in Port Arthur, Texas.

The conglomerate also formerly owned and operated 10 power plants in Texas’ electric market.

The proposed merger would need the sign-off of the Delaware judge overseeing Energy Future Holdings’ bankruptcy, along with approvals from the Public Utility Commission of Texas and federal regulators.

Sempra Energy would pay $9.45 billion in cash for Dallas-based Oncor and assume its debt, making the deal worth about $18.8 billion. The company said it would own about 60 percent of Oncor under the deal, which would include financing from megabanks RBC Capital Markets and Morgan Stanley.

Sempra Energy's Oncor offer bested the $9 billion in cash Berkshire Hathaway put forward before facing resistance from creditors in bankruptcy court. Buffett is known for avoiding bidding wars.

Sempra Energy is venturing where other companies have stumbled. Over the past two years, the Ray L. Hunt family of Dallas and Florida-based NextEra Energy have separately tried to buy Oncor, Energy Future’s most coveted asset. Both saw pushback from consumer advocates — those concerned about the deals’ impact on Oncor’s financial health, independence and rates it charges — and failed to gain full approval from the state’s Public Utility Commission.

Oncor currently charges the lowest rates among its peers in Texas. 

In July, Buffett’s company had suggested its now-scuttled deal would fare better. It had announced rare supportfrom utility commission and consumer groups, and it circulated a document with 44 regulatory commitments that it says parties that might intervene at the utility commission have already agreed to.

Sempra Energy’s announcement Monday was more muted, but the company said Oncor under the deal would stay in Dallas under local management and keep its independent board of directors, which would insulate it from the financial ups and downs of its parent company.

When Energy Future was formed 10 years ago, utility commissioners insisted on a financial and corporate ring fence around Oncor to keep bankruptcy from dragging it down. It worked, keeping Oncor financially healthy even as Energy Future sank.

If Sempra Energy closes the deal, Bob Shapard, Oncor’s CEO, would become executive chairman of the Oncor’s board of directors. Allen Nye, currently Oncor’s general counsel, would be named the utility’s CEO, according to a press release.

Sempra Energy said it would also commit $7.5 billion over five years to expand and reinforce Oncor’s transmission and distribution network.

“It is important for Oncor to remain financially strong,” Reed said. “Our proposal will help bring a satisfactory resolution to Energy Future’s bankruptcy case, keep Oncor financially strong, and protect Oncor customers, while addressing the needs of Texas regulators, creditors and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.”

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Jim Malewitz is an investigative reporter Tribune. He previously covered energy and environmental issues. Before arriving in 2013, he covered those issues for Stateline, a nonprofit news service in Washington, D.C. The Michigan native majored in political science at Grinnell College in Iowa and holds a master’s from the University of Iowa. There, he helped launch the nonprofit Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, where he currently serves on the board of directors. Jim also coaches the Texas Tribune Runoffs, which, sources say, is the scrappiest coed newsroom softball team west of the Mississippi.