Utility Asks Judge to Block Release of Coal Plant Facts

PacifiCorp wants to block public release of some economic information it provided to state regulators about its coal-burning units

By Molly Priddy

SEATTLE — An electric utility is asking a Washington state judge to permanently block the public release of some economic information it provided to state regulators about its coal-burning units.

The Sierra Club says the public should have clear information about the financial risks of operating coal-burning power plants. It filed a public records request seeking information that PacifiCorp blacked out in a coal analysis the company provided to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission this summer.

In July, PacifiCorp won a temporary restraining order to prevent state regulators from releasing that information publicly. A Thurston County Superior Court judge is scheduled Friday to hear whether to make that injunction permanent.

The utility, based in Portland, Oregon, completed a unit-specific analysis on the costs of retiring its coal-burning units — at the request of Oregon state regulators — but redacted some information it said was confidential and “commercially sensitive.”

“This is a partial analysis that doesn’t provide a complete picture of whether or not a coal unit should be retired early,” said Bob Gravely, a PacifiCorp spokesman. He said releasing the information could do real harm because it can be misconstrued and distort the market. The utility provided the redacted information to those who signed non-disclosure agreements, he added.

The utility serves 1.9 million customers in six Western states, including Washington and Oregon. Coal accounts for about 62 percent of PacifiCorp’s supply mix, and it has 26 coal-burning units in Wyoming, Utah, Montana and other states.

The Sierra Club says that there’s a strong public interest in the information, that it is not a trade secret and that the utility hasn’t met its burden to prove that disclosing it would result in harm to the company.

The Sierra Club has been pushing utilities nationwide to retire coal-burning plants or replace them with renewable energy sources such as wind or solar, arguing the cost of operating coal-fired power plants is too high and costs ratepayers.

The Trump administration is actively trying to prop up the coal industry and extend the life of coal plants, said Caleb Heeringa, deputy press secretary for the Sierra Club’s beyond coal campaign.

“It’s never been more important that we have clear information about the cost of operating of those plants,” Heeringa said.

The Environmental Protection Agency last month said it would dismantle Obama-era pollution regulations that it called overly prescriptive and burdensome. Its proposal broadly increases the authority given to states to decide how and how much to regulate existing coal power plants.

In August, an administrative law judge with Oregon’s Public Utility Commission sided with PacifiCorp and declined to release the coal analysis, calling it “a trade secret” and not public information.

In Washington, state regulators haven’t taken a position, said spokesman Dean Pertner.

“The UTC will release confidential records filed with the UTC that are responsive to a public records request unless there is a court order preventing disclosure,” Pertner said.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.