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FERC Seeks to Limit Critical Energy Data
Public's Help Asked in Writing Rules

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By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 6, 2002; Page A17

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is asking the public to help decide what constitutes "critical energy infrastructure information" a prelude to restricting that information from general public view.

And in what one watchdog group calls a "bizarre" twist, FERC has put off-limits an appendix describing data that might be considered critical infrastructure, except to people who sign a pledge to refrain from publicly discussing its contents.

Some public disclosure advocates fear that FERC, which has already removed sensitive material from its Web sites, is creating a broad, new category of classified information that is not provided for under current secrecy rules or the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

"We have no category in our laws of the kind that FERC thinks it's going to create," said Dan Guttman, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's Center for the Study of American Government. "We are thinking of restricting access to information that comes from the private sector and was produced without any national security data access."

FERC, which announced its effort in a Jan. 16 notice, is seeking the public's help in creating a new way and possibly a new regulation to protect information that it believes could be used to sabotage power plants and pipelines.

Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a group that tracks the White House's Office of Management and Budget and the regulatory process, is concerned that FERC is shifting the basis of access to information from right-to-know to need-to-know.

"There is something bizarre with commenting on a policy, but not being able to see the information on which you're commenting about," Bass added.

But a FERC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, defended the agency's effort. "We are not in any way, shape or form intending to curtail or to adversely affect the right of the public to intervene in any way in FERC proceedings," the official said. "We want to make sure that the people who need and have a right to participate in the proceedings have all the information they need. We're trying to balance that objective against information on pipelines and hydropower facilities that in the wrong hands could cause harm."

The commission is reluctant to use FOIA as its guide for disclosure because once release of information is made to one requester under the act, that information generally is available to all requesters, the official noted.

In a January notice in the Federal Register, the agency posed a series of questions, such as: What are the primary considerations that FERC should use to determine which information should be protected? Aside from location, what additional types of information may warrant protection?

FERC has already removed from its Web site maps detailing power plants and utilities. But it is concerned that there might be other information, such as data relating to the transmission of electricity, that needs protection. A fuller description of potentially sensitive material is in the nonpublic appendix, which was available only until Feb. 7 for examination.

The public comment period ends March 11. Comments about the appendix will remain confidential. Comments relating to the questions will be made public.

2002 The Washington Post Company


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