The Sierra Club is taking legal action against the U.S. Department of Energy over the agency's lack of response to a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request related to a grid reliability study ordered by Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The environmental group filed a lawsuit Aug. 14 following the DOE's "repeated delays" in making a determination on the FOIA request it filed in May, which asked for communications between agency officials working on the grid study and outside groups representing the fossil fuel industry.
In an April memo to his chief of staff, Perry gave the Energy Department 60 days to study critical long-term grid reliability issues, citing the rising number of coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydroelectric power plant retirements and maintaining that baseload power is critical to the proper functioning of the electric grid. Perry also ordered that "regulatory burdens" and federal subsidies for renewable energy be examined.
Perry's mandates caused an outcry among both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, as well as energy-related business groups and associations, with some suggesting that the results of the study were predetermined. While the release of the study originally was expected in early June, the DOE subsequently pushed the date back. At that time, the agency said Perry would review a draft of the report in early July to ensure all of his questions had been answered and the study would be released publicly soon thereafter.
It was suggested that a final version of the report could be released the week of July 17, but following a leak of a draft of the report to Bloomberg News and subsequently other news outlets, the Energy Department delayed the release further. The draft said that while the retirement of baseload power plants has accelerated since 2009, those retirements were closely related to the fall in natural gas prices and flattening of customer peak demand, among other factors.
The Sierra Club said in its legal complaint that the DOE was required to make a determination regarding its FOIA request by May 30 and should have produced responsive documents shortly thereafter. The agency "ignored the deadline required by FOIA and still has not made a determination on Sierra Club’s request, nor produced any documents, as FOIA required it to do" and thus has "violated the law," the group said.
"Timely disclosure is imperative given that DOE’s forthcoming study is a matter of significant public interest and concern," the complaint said. Additionally, policymakers could use the study as a basis for policy changes that could cause consumers to have to bear large costs, halt innovation and reverse clean energy progress, according to the Sierra Club. "It is critical that these policymakers are able to immediately place the DOE study in proper context and understand how the agency was influenced in this work," the group maintained.
"The secrecy around this grid study, coupled with the lack of input from stakeholders, have raised alarms for us, and we are concerned that Perry will seize this study and strip the science from it to justify not only curtailing clean energy’s growth, but also forcing electricity customers to prop up uneconomical fossil fuel plants," Mary Anne Hitt, the director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement.