Energy agency says Web info poses threat

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is proposing new rules to limit the public's access to information

Citing the threat of terrorism, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is proposing new rules to limit the public's access to information about power plants, pipelines and other components of the energy infrastructure.

Only those with "a need to know" will have access to the information, and they might be required to sign an agreement that prohibits them from revealing what they have learned.

The agency proposes appointing a special information coordinator who would determine whether an individual seeking information has a need to know it.

The proposed rules would greatly limit access to information that was freely available on FERC's Web site until mid-October 2001, and public interest organizations are greeting the rules with alarm.

The restrictions would be "unprecedented," said Sean Moulton, a senior policy analyst at OMB Watch, a public interest organization.

"What FERC is proposing to do is to shut communities out of the information loop," said Tyson Slocom, research director for Public Citizen's Energy Project.

Under the new rules, the public could be denied important safety information about the energy infrastructure, such as the location of pipelines and power plants, Moulton and Slocom said. And the information restrictions would apply to energy projects that are merely in the proposal stage as well as facilities that already exist.

According to FERC, which oversees energy production and sales, greater secrecy is necessary because energy installations make attractive targets for terrorists.

"Americans have had to face the harsh realities of terrorism on their soil," according to the agency's 50-page document spelling out the proposed rules. "This has forced the nation to reassess its vulnerability to terrorist threats. Government agencies as well as private companies have had to reconsider the extent to which they make information freely available to others."

FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller said the new rules would restrict public access to "a very small percentage of the information" that used to be publicly available. A month after the terrorist attacks last year, FERC officials blocked access to "tens of thousands of documents" on hydropower plants, gas pipelines, electric transmission lines and other elements identified as critical to the energy infrastructure.

Much of the information has since been returned to FERC's Web site and to public reference rooms, Miller said.

FERC officials say they want to protect the nation's energy infrastructure by limiting access to information that might be used to plan an attack on the nation's pipelines, transmission lines or power plants.

But the kind of information FERC hopes to hide from terrorists is also the kind of information individuals and communities need to know for safety reasons, Moulton said. "If these facilities are vulnerable or pose some sort of threat, the public has a right to know about that. How can the location of a gas main be kept from the public?"

The rules "are not going to do anything to make the infrastructure safe from terrorism," Slocom said. "All they will do is forbid citizens to have information about what's going on in their communities."

FERC will accept public comments on its proposed rules until Oct. 13. Then the agency will review the comments and issue a final rule, Miller said.

Unless the final rule is substantially less restrictive than the proposed rule, "we will challenge this in court at the first opportunity," Slocom said.

***

Gone but not forgotten

Agencies may remove information from their Web sites, but that doesn't mean the data disappears from the Internet.

Purged pages can continue to exist in search engine caches, in Web archives and on the computers of those who may have copied them.

For example, Transportation Security Administration specifications for a passenger- checking computer system resurfaced in August even though the agency removed the information from its Web site between March and June. The document was retrieved from a search engine cache in mid-July.

Some of the documents that federal agencies deleted after last year's terrorist attacks may still be available in the Internet Archive, a nonprofit site created in 1996 to preserve versions of Web sites at certain points in time.

Through the Internet Archive, it is possible to search old government sites for documents that have since been removed from the Internet.

Not everything will be there, however. Agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have taken steps to have sensitive material stricken from the Internet Archive.

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