The first time I communicated in French and actually understood the response, I was elated. Those foreign syllables really did mean something, and as my misunderstandings and mispronunciations decreased, my fascination with the new world opening up to me increased.

It was much the same way when I plunged into energy reporting. My first weeks on the beat were painful. I was overwhelmed by the words I was hearing—megawatts, BTU’s, capacity charges, and dedicated rate component. I didn’t have a clue what these words meant. But when I began to get a grip on the beat’s terminology and its culture, I entered another world. As with learning French, I’ve found this experience to be challenging, enriching, frustrating and fascinating.

In energy, the stakes are high and dollars huge. The success or failure of an energy policy or practice—whether it is regulation, deregulation or some combination of the two—has saved as well as taken lives. Decisions about energy have destroyed political careers. Recently, some impoverished Bolivian Indians lost their lives when they protested their government’s plan to export natural gas to California and southwestern United States. After winning a second term as California’s governor, Gray Davis was ejected from office by voters in a recall election largely because the state’s deregulation experiment with its energy policy blew up in his face.

The energy beat involves covering flamboyant characters. There is Erin Brockovich, who helped to uncover how water supplies contaminated by Pacific Gas & Electric killed and harmed people in a small town in Southern California and Enron’s Ken Lay, whose decision-making led to the scandalous implosion of his company, which was once the United States’s largest energy trader.

Don’t let a few BTU’s, gigawatts or multisyllabic power lingo get in the way of tackling this beat. Plunging into the energy story and learning to speak its language and understand its culture is a journey well worth undertaking.

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