WSJ: White House worked with buyout firm to save major Philadelphia refinery
By MARK MAREMONT
The Wall Street Journal
Since the spring, President Barack Obamas re-election campaign has repeatedly hit Mitt Romney for his career as a private-equity executive and has aired ads accusing his former firm, Bain Capital, of ruining businesses and sending jobs overseas.
At the same time, the Obama White House played a central role in encouraging another private-equity firm to rescue a Philadelphia oil refinery, whose imminent closure by owner Sunoco threatened to send gasoline prices higher before the election.
Gene Sperling, director of Mr. Obama's National Economic Council, helped kick-start discussions to sell the refinery to Carlyle Group, a well-connected Washington, D.C., private-equity firm.
Mr. Sperling later talked numerous times to Carlyle executives, government officials and union leaders as part of a bipartisan effort, according to participants in the talks.
Carlyle last month said it would take a two-thirds stake in the refinery and invest at least $200 million, staving off the potential for fuel-price increases and saving 850 unionized jobs in Pennsylvania, a likely battleground state in November.
To help seal the deal, expected to be made final in September, the Obama administration and state regulators agreed to loosen certain environmental restrictions on the refinery.
Pennsylvania's Republican governor, Tom Corbett, contributed $25 million in state subsidies and other incentives.
The refinery story is an example of how the private-equity industry is a more complicated place than the image kicked up by this year's presidential election, in which first Mr. Romney's Republican primary rivals, and then the White House, used Bain as a cudgel.
It also helps explain why partisans on both sides argue strenuously about the subject. The successful deal was widely reported, and an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported some details of the White Houses involvement.
Mr. Corbett, the Pennsylvania governor, said the lesson is that private-equity firms are not evil. Even though campaigns may say that, administrations understand they're necessary to get deals done.
There were no other realistic buyers for the refinery, he said, and if Carlyle didn't invest, a deal to save it just wouldn't have happened.
On the other side, Leo Gerard, an Obama supporter and president of the United Steelworkers union, which represents most employees at the refinery, said the union wouldn't have agreed to the deal if Bain had been across the table.
Our experience with Bain is that they strip and flip and walk out with as much as they can, Mr. Gerard said, while the union's experience with Carlyle is the opposite. The union agreed to a new contract with modest concessions as part of the deal.
During a campaign, some may distort our record for political purposes, but the truth is that revenues have grown in 80% of the more than 350 companies in which we have invested, a Bain spokesman said.
White House officials said they didn't choose Carlyle but were told by Sunoco that Carlyle was the only viable bidder. A White House spokesman, Clark Stevens, said the administrations goal was to protect consumers from higher prices at the pump and keep people from losing their jobs.
Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said, You would have to engage in quite the verbal gymnastics to suggest there is an equivalence between the administration working to save jobs and keep gas prices down and Gov. Romney claiming he was a job creator when he profited off of bankrupting companies and outsourcing jobs.
Mr. Romney has acknowledged that some businesses Bain invested in failed but said the firm helped many others and created jobs.
In September 2011, Sunoco said it planned to quit the refining business and sell refineries in Philadelphia and nearby Marcus Hook, Pa. The company has said its refineries lost $1 billion over three years. Sunoco warned it would close both facilities if it failed to find a buyer.
By the end of last year, it had halted refining at Marcus Hook, and talks with possible buyers for the Philadelphia refinery, including Carlyle, had fizzled.
Closing the Philadelphia refinery, the largest on the East Coast, threatened to disrupt gasoline and heating-oil supplies in the Northeast.
A Feb. 27 report from the federal Energy Information Administration warned of the potential for prices to spike. Republicans at that time were criticizing the administration for rising gasoline prices.
The EIA warnings, along with a broader reduction of refinery capacity in the region, set alarm bells ringing inside the White House, an administration official said. Aides concluded gas prices could rise 20 cents to 30 cents a gallon in parts of the Northeast.
In late February, Rep. Bob Brady, (D., Pa.), a union-friendly congressman from Philadelphia, met with Sunoco's incoming chief executive, Brian P. MacDonald.
Mr. Brady said the White House was concerned and asked Mr. MacDonald to think about options if there was broader help, according to a timeline later circulated by Carlyle, which Sunoco said was accurate. Mr. MacDonald asked to talk to the White House directly.
A Brady representative said the congressman was traveling and unavailable to comment.
On March 8, the White Houses Mr. Sperling hosted a call with the Sunoco CEO, Mr. Brady and Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman. The White House confirmed the call.
The group discussed the possibility of $5 gasoline prices for the summer, Sunoco's Mr. MacDonald recalled.
When the officials pressed him on a potential solution, he said Sunoco might be willing to keep a piece of the Philadelphia refinery through a joint venture with a partner that could contribute expertise and cash.
It would have to be a very capable party, Mr. MacDonald recalled saying. Sperling pushed me: Who would a party like that be?
Mr. MacDonald said Carlyle fit the bill.
Soon after, Mr. Sperling called Carlyle co-CEO David M. Rubenstein about the refinery, according to Carlyle, and left a message.
Carlyle has shied away from any overt involvement in politics. Mr. Rubenstein worked in the Carter administration, and the firm employs executives who have worked in administrations from both parties. It doesn't donate to political campaigns.
Mr. Rubenstein passed the message from Mr. Sperling to a Carlyle executive who had worked with Mr. Sperling in the Clinton White House, David Marchick, according to Mr. Marchick.
Mr. Marchick said Mr. Sperling told him the White House was willing to help move the deal along. Mr. Sperling also told him the White House wouldn't do anything just to help Carlyle and that the same assistance would be available to any potential buyer, Mr. Marchick said.
They didn't care who bought it, he said.
Eventually, Sunoco and Carlyle agreed to explore a joint venture, with Carlyle paying nothing for a majority stake but contributing cash for an upgrade.
On March 19, Mr. Sperling talked to Pennsylvanias Mr. Corbett to see if the Republican governor was interested in cooperating. Mr. Corbett, whose office was already trying to rescue the refinery, agreed.
The White House helped with Carlyle, and we helped with state government, he said.
A key issue Carlyle identified was a 2005 consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency under which Sunoco agreed to limit emissions at its refineries.
Carlyle wanted to work on the refinery without triggering costly environmental reviews.
The White House referred the issue to the EPA, which along with state and local environmental officials agreed to modify the decree, allowing Carlyle to transfer emissions credits from the Marcus Hook refinery, in effect giving the Philadelphia refinery greater leeway to pollute.
The agreement compressed into a few months what participants said could have taken much longer. Carlyle said it doesn't plan to use the added credits, and over time will reduce emissions. It said the changes will provide flexibility as it carries out the upgrade.
Carlyles plan to turn the refinery profitable includes a partial shift to oil from North Dakota that is cheaper than crude from West Africa it now refines, and switching to newly abundant natural gas to power part of the refinery.
In mid-May, as Carlyle and Sunoco were briefing the White House and other officials on their plan, the Obama campaign launched a broadside against Mr. Romneys Bain career, which featured a worker saying Bain was a vampire in its handling of a steel company.
Later, an independent group supporting the Obama candidacy released an ad implicitly accusing Mr. Romney of contributing to the death of a laid-off worker's wife.
On a July 2 conference call announcing the refinery deal, Carlyle and Sunoco executives and public officials repeatedly thanked the White House and Mr. Sperling.
The White House was the only major player not on the call.
Dow Jones Newswires