U.S. Energy Project Details to be Kept Secretby Tom Doggett
Reuters - February 21, 2003
WASHINGTON -- Federal energy regulators approved rules Thursday to keep secret certain information about U.S. power plants, large transmission lines, and oil and natural gas pipelines, citing post-Sept. 11 security concerns.
In keeping the information away from extremist groups, the rules would also restrict the general public's access.
The information to be kept secret includes pipeline maps and electric grid flow diagrams that could reveal congested areas when moving energy supplies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) said.
Other off-limits information includes pipeline inspection reports, detailed blueprints, and emergency action plans that energy plants must file with regulators.
Immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. cities, FERC and other agencies, like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Environmental Protection Agency, quickly withdrew public information on critical energy facilities. However, FERC is the first government agency to develop formal rules on how to handle such sensitive records.
"I'm just sorry that we need a rule like this," said FERC Chairman Pat Wood. "I do think that it's very clear that information has become a weapon in our society and one of the more vulnerable places for that is the very visible energy infrastructure."
The final rules were announced at a monthly meeting of FERC commissioners.
U.S. press freedom groups have criticized FERC, saying the agency wants to change its rules to suit itself instead of asking Congress for guidance on how to interpret the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The Society of Professional Journalists and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press urged FERC last year to drop its planned rules. They said the public has a right to know about vulnerable energy infrastructure and demand action to strengthen it.
In what could be the most controversial part of its rules, FERC will use new authority granted to itself to question why anyone sought restricted information, making information available only to those deemed to have a "legitimate need."
Currently, when companies, journalists, state officials, or advocacy groups ask FERC for documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act, the agency is not allowed to consider what the requester will do with the documents.
Agency staff members said they do not believe the new rules violate the U.S. guarantees of freedom of speech, based on advice from the Justice Department.
FERC commissioner William Massey expressed concern that landowners may have a difficult time in obtaining information about proposed pipelines that will cross their property.
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