The N.C. Utilities Commission ordered Tuesday that some provisions of the 20 confidential settlement agreements filed as part of the Duke Energy-Progress Energy merger be made public.
Agreements between the utilities and industrial customer groups, electric cooperatives, municipal power agencies and individual towns and cities removed potential opposition to the merger, which the commission approved June 29.
N.C. WARN, a Durham advocacy group, challenged the confidential treatment of the agreements. WARN argued that most of the agreements don’t hold trade secrets that can be sealed from public view.
The Charlotte Observer, Raleigh’s News & Observer and other media outlets also urged the commission to release the documents as public records.
Commission members agreed in part Tuesday. They ordered that 84 of the agreement provisions at issue remain confidential and that 39 must be made public.
Taken as a whole, the commission ruled, the agreements aren’t trade secrets that hold sensitive business information or could economically benefit someone else. But many individual provisions did meet that standard, it said.
The commission also said the trade-secrets standard does not apply to public agencies such as electric membership corporations, ordering them to make their agreements public.
Parties to the agreements have 10 days to publicly refile the documents or appeal the order in court.
N.C. WARN has argued that the agreements could unfairly shift merger costs and benefits among customer groups, and could be a way for Duke and Progress to win support for future rate hikes.
“It’s a strong blow to Duke’s corporate pride to attempt to claim confidentiality in such a broad way and have it shot down,” director Jim Warren said.
Duke Energy had no comment and its lawyers were reviewing the order, spokesman Tom Williams said.
Raleigh lawyer Amanda Martin, who represented the media groups, said “I don’t disagree with the underlying rationale” the commission cited. That included the value of public disclosure and that there’s no inherent need to keep settlement agreements confidential.
It’s unclear, she said, whether its decision will apply to future cases.
“The public is always at a disadvantage in evaluating the propriety of keeping something sealed because the public hasn’t seen it,” Martin said. “It’s hard to ascertain the validity of the sealing.”
Henderson: 704-358-5051 Twitter: @bhender