Utility partners want private deals kept secret

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJune 28, 2012 

Organizations that have cut private financial deals with Duke Energy and Progress Energy say they want those agreements kept out of public view.

The N.C. Utilities Commission set a Thursday deadline for organizations to make their case, and all are expected to argue that their private deals with the electric utilities contain “trade secrets.” Some 15 deals were made in the past year with Progress and Duke in exchange for the organizations agreeing not to oppose the power companies’ proposed merger.

Their secrecy is being challenged by N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network. The Durham environmental group says the confidential financial guarantees could harm other customers, particularly the elderly and low-income.

The organizations in the private deals are industrial power users, rural electric cooperatives and municipal power agencies, together representing about 1.4 million power customers in the state. They have received written assurance that they will not have to bear any financial costs from the proposed merger between Raleigh-based Progress and Charlotte-based Duke.

The rural co-ops umbrella group in Raleigh said in a filing Thursday that the “settlement agreements are permeated with trade secrets.”

“The strategic information that could be gleaned from the settlement documents would unquestionably be of value to NCEMC’s competitors, as well as to its potential suppliers and customer for energy products,” the N.C. Electric Membership Corp. said in its filing.

The last-minute flurry of filings is taking place against the backdrop of a state merger review that could result in a ruling this week on the proposed $26 billion Duke-Progress deal. N.C. Utilities Commission Chairman Edward Finley Jr. indicated this week that the ruling is imminent and could happen before the commissioners rule on the confidential agreements.

It’s not clear what exactly is in the private agreements. The industrial customers said they contain valuable clues about energy costs, production costs and proprietary energy strategies that would give advantage to competitors.

The private deals can be reviewed by utilities commissioners and parties in the merger proceedings as long as they sign non-disclosure agreements.

N.C. WARN has refused to sign such an agreement because the group could not use the knowledge gained to oppose the merger. N.C. WARN director Jim Warren said that signing a non-disclosure form is tantamount to signing a gag order.

Progress and Duke have already urged the N.C. commission not to disclose the other confidential settlements, making arguments that will likely be echoed by the organizations themselves.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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