The Natural: GC Helps Panda Energy Grow Its Power Plant Business

, Texas Lawyer

L. Stephen Rizzieri grew up in Gilbertsville, N.Y., population 650, a town so small that his high school graduating class had only 28 people.

But Rizzieri has gone on to see the world as longtime chief legal officer and general counsel of Panda Energy International Inc., a company that develops power plants domestically and abroad. He has traveled to China and Nepal, countries where Panda has developed facilities. He also has been to Sierra Leone, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Brunei and Costa Rica to help seal deals on behalf of other companies.

"I love the international work," Rizzieri says. "It gets in your blood. You see areas that need so much development work, you start to feel you're doing something worthwhile."

International work is cyclical, Rizzieri says, so right now he is helping Panda, a privately owned company that has been around for more than 25 years, arrange financing and other aspects of domestic deals to develop power plants fueled mostly by clean burning natural gas instead of dirtier coal.

While it is a "tough market" for Panda and its competitors, due to the economy and a perception by potential investors that there is a glut of electric power supply, Rizzieri foresees a bright future for Panda, which he thinks can help the environment by building natural gas-fired power plants while turning a profit for its owners and financiers.

"The economy is not going to stay in the doldrums forever," says Rizzieri, who predicts rising power demand in the near future. "There has to be an answer to all these old coal plants."

Attorneys who work with Rizzieri say he is the right person to handle the legal affairs of a company that develops power plants, a complicated process that includes finding the right location, gaining the necessary approvals, designing the plants, arranging financing and supervising construction.

"He's an immensely talented lawyer," says Werner A. Powers, a litigation partner in the Dallas office of Haynes and Boone who has served as outside counsel for Panda for more than 10 years. "Steve provides the intellectual support on many cases I've tried for Panda."

After graduating from a K-12 school where his parents worked as teachers, Rizzieri studied political science at the State University of New York at Geneseo, near Buffalo. He chose not to stay in upstate New York after completing his undergraduate studies in 1977.

Instead, Rizzieri decided to move to Oklahoma. He says he was attracted by the booming oil business, which dimmed by the time he graduated. Oklahoma "seemed like the place to be," says Rizzieri, who recalls people singing tunes from the musical "Oklahoma!" when he revealed his plans.

Rizzieri attended the University of Oklahoma College of Law in Norman. He recalls a part-time job at Oklahoma City University teaching English to Iranians, Iraqis and Venezuelans, foreigners working in Oklahoma because of their connections to the energy industry. Aiding those students, Rizzieri says, prepared him to later work with foreign officials and business leaders in closing deals for Panda and other energy companies.

After graduating from law school in 1980, Rizzieri spent one year as a deputy general counsel in the enforcement division of the Oklahoma Securities Commission. In 1981, he became an in-house attorney at Woods Petroleum Corp., an oil and gas production company.

In 1985, Sunshine Mining Co., owner of a silver mine in Idaho and other concessions, bought Woods Petroleum, and Rizzieri stayed with the company. (A concession is a grant from a rights-owner to another party to mine or drill for oil or gas.)

At Sunshine, Rizzieri says he received a "strong baptism in securities work" and traveled internationally to negotiate deals, including making a trip to negotiate rights to an oil concession in the Sultanate of Brunei.

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