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June 11-15: Activist investors push Sempra split; Vistra touts cash-rich outlook

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June 11-15: Activist investors push Sempra split; Vistra touts cash-rich outlook

A look back at successes and setbacks in the energy industry.

Highs

VISTRA — Vistra Energy Corp. on June 12 unveiled a $500 million share buyback effort as part of the company's plan to return cash to shareholders and lure long-term investors. Vistra management told investors during an analyst day presentation that improving fundamentals in wholesale power markets and higher margins from the company's retail business could deliver $9.8 billion in adjusted free cash flow through the end of 2022, of which approximately $6 billion is expected to be converted into excess capital available for allocation. The strategy was unveiled just two months after Vistra completed its acquisition of fellow Texas merchant generator Dynegy Inc. "I think our business model sets itself up, especially with the cash flow and return of capital to shareholders, for long-only interest, and we're pitching that," Vistra President, CEO and Director Curt Morgan said.

Between

SEMPRA — Activist investors Elliott Management Corp. and Bluescape Resources Co. LLC on June 11 announced their two-step plan to unlock value at diversified utility Sempra Energy and simplify its business structure. Elliott and Bluescape highlighted an opportunity to "refresh the board" with six independent directors and split Sempra into a pure-play regulated utility and a separately traded LNG and midstream-focused enterprise. They believe their plan could lead to $11 billion to $16 billion in "line-of-sight value creation," driving Sempra's stock price up to $139 per share to $158 per share. Wall Street analysts have expressed reservations about the "inflated" valuation inferred by the activist shareholders amid uncertainty over how Sempra's management will respond to the pitch, which includes selling non-U.S. businesses and Sempra Renewables LLC.

ENTERGY — Documents released June 13 by the New Orleans City Council appear to indicate Entergy New Orleans LLC paid public relations contractor The Hawthorn Group to recruit supporters and speakers for its proposed 126-MW New Orleans Power Station., but there's no clear indication that the utility knew those supporters would be paid. The Entergy Corp. subsidiary said in a May 10 report following an internal investigation that it had no knowledge of the compensation paid to people to attend and speak at New Orleans City Council hearings in favor of its application to build the gas-fired power plant. Crowds on Demand, a subcontractor hired by The Hawthorn Group, is believed to have deployed actors to two key council meetings on Entergy New Orleans' proposal, which was approved in March. "A careful reading of documents substantiates our position, and we stand by our earlier statement that Entergy was unaware and did not authorize compensation of individuals to appear or speak at public meetings," Entergy spokeswoman Emily Parenteau said in an email June 15.

Lows

PG&E — PG&E Corp. subsidiary Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has expressed concern about the "tremendous uncertainty" the utility faces for potential liabilities from the October 2017 wildfires in northern California, which adds to the uncertainty over access to capital. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, in a June 8 report said that Pacific Gas and Electric's electrical equipment contributed to the wildfires in California wine country. Cal Fire said that there is evidence the company violated state laws in 11 of the 16 cases for which the department has issued reports. S&P Global Ratings on June 13 downgraded the issuer credit ratings of PG&E Corp. and Pacific Gas and Electric on the initial results of the wildfire investigation in California. PG&E, meanwhile, has openly criticized California's inverse condemnation rule, under which investor-owned utilities may be liable for fire damages even without a finding of negligence. "Liability regardless of negligence undermines the financial health of the state's utilities, discourages investment in California and has the potential to materially impact the ability of utilities to access the capital markets to fund utility operations and California's bold clean energy vision," Pacific Gas and Electric said in response to the latest Cal Fire report.

S&P Global Ratings and S&P Global Market Intelligence are owned by S&P Global Inc.