Fortune magazine may have voted Houston-based Enron the most innovative company four years running, but the natural-gas giant has an old-fashioned approach to controversy. It runs from it.
Case in point: the corporation's decision to ban Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas Inc. from participating in Earth Day Festival, the Buffalo Bayou Park event underwritten by Enron and produced by KRBE/104.1 FM. Planned Parenthood runs ten family-planning clinics in the area, one of which offers abortions, so Enron officials, led by chairman Ken Lay, have judged it too hot to handle.
"It is nothing against Planned Parenthood and the whole breadth of the work that they do," says Enron spokesman Mark Palmer. "But [the abortion] issue is present in that in a fairly large way, and to be true to our position not to take a position, we had to make that difficult decision [to exclude the organization]."
Planned Parenthood Vice President of Communications Susan Nenney found out about the ban last week when she inquired about display space at the April 10 event. The nonprofit organization is a member of the Citizens Environmental Coalition in Houston, and overpopulation is a pressing global problem. Nenney believes it should be represented in any educational forum on Mother Earth's problems, since Planned Parenthood spends 94 percent of its resources on pregnancy prevention.
"Sometimes corporations do exclude Planned Parenthood, but they are not sponsoring Earth Day, which is about the environment," she argues. "If a jumbo jet crashed every day, killing all people on board, corporate America would be demanding solutions. But that's exactly how many women die every day for lack of family planning and reproductive health care, leaving thousands of kids without their mothers."
Nenney says Enron excluded Planned Parenthood employees from past events it sponsored, but the company shouldn't prevent the public from being exposed to population control issues. "It defines hypocrisy," declares Nenney, "for a corporation sponsoring Earth Day to exclude discussion of international family planning."
The Citizens Environmental Coalition began sponsoring Earth Day observances in Houston four years ago, until KRBE offered to promote and broadcast the event with funding from Enron. The CEC is one of the beneficiaries of revenue raised from event ticket sales. As the group putting up the money, Enron decides who participates. The CEC's David Crossley says that Planned Parenthood, as a member of his group, shouldn't be excluded from Earth Day.
"The big issue," says Crossley, "is that population is a huge part of the environmental problem, and that's what Planned Parenthood is about. So they are a real, critical part of the conversation."
CEC board member Chris Sagstetter suspects that recent violence against abortion doctors and clinics influenced Enron.
"It confirms what my gut instinct was as to why they were being turned down," says Sagstetter. "There have been murders and bombings and other activity, and really hostile activity, which would not be conducive to a family environment atmosphere, which is what they're trying to provide. They know there are going to be a lot of children there."
Nenney scoffs at the suggestion that security concerns are behind Enron's decision. "They're not worried about any threat," she says. "What they don't want is the controversy."
Among groups that will be given space at Earth Day are merchants such as Comfort Zone, an antifatigue floor mat distributor, and the Greensheet Education Foundation, touted as a group producing award-winning writing programs. There will even be a place for the Harris County Green Party Organizing Committee -- though, presumably, their presence does not mean Enron supports Green Party candidates around the country.
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Interestingly, Enron honcho Lay didn't seem too worried about associating with Planned Parenthood in 1994, when he hosted a Houston reception for the organization and introduced speakers. Lay himself donated to Planned Parenthood but did not respond to an Insider inquiry as to why his company feels the organization is a political untouchable.
If environmental groups were as fearful as Enron of being associated with controversy, perhaps they should re-evaluate whether the corporation is an appropriate sponsor for Earth Day.
After all, Amnesty International issued that report last year accusing Enron of collusion with militia groups that terrorized villagers who opposed an Enron project in rural India. As with its decision against Planned Parenthood and family-planning matters on Earth Day, Enron's definition of an environmental issue doesn't seem to include the treatment of the people who happen to live on the planet.
-- Tim Fleck