By Carrie Peyton Bee Staff Writer Sacramento, California (Published March 3, 1998)

Beneath a mound of federal energy statistics, a quietly smoldering dispute is about to ignite.

Private utilities, fearful of losing trade secrets to new competitors, want the government to clamp down on data it has collected for years.

Consumer and environmental groups, which have used the data almost as long to promote their causes, are trying to save as much as they can.

"This will be a critical test of whether we're going to keep information in the public domain or seal it off," said Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who sees the data as a key way to verify "green" power claims nationwide.

The grittiest details of electricity-making are published in 16 or more annual or monthly reports by the Energy Information Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy. Countless more unpublished statistics are posted on its Web site or available directly from EIA staff.

The information can be startlingly specific, revealing which fuels are used in each power plant, which generators in a plant run most efficiently, and how much power production costs per kilowatt-hour.

That alarms private utilities, which fear that in the tide of electric restructuring they will be swept away as rivals figure out their costs, plant by plant, and then underbid them.

"In a competitive world, you just don't give this information away," said Tom Daugherty of the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group that's asking Washington to close the door on much of the data.

"It's as if General Motors had to report to the public that, yes, it costs X to produce a car at this plant, here's all our expenses, here's how efficient our equipment is ... (here's) who we sell to and who we buy from," Daugherty said.

But to an array of public utilities and environmental advocates, the data have been a treasure trove.

In New Jersey, a group fighting for tougher state air pollution rules relied on the power plant statistics to make its case.

In Nebraska, small-town city councils use the same statistics to evaluate their own electric utilities, looking for ways to do the job better.

In Berkeley, an environmental consultant used the data to rank power plants nationwide on their emissions per dollar of revenue, as part of a global warming campaign.

"The only way I can make an estimate of how much mercury is coming out the smokestack is knowing what kind of coal goes into that boiler," said Rebecca Stanfield, energy advocate for the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group.

Lee Starr of the Nebraska Municipal Power Pool Energy described the data as "very useful in educating our member towns," where council membership can change every two to four years.

NMPP Energy, which serves more than 100 city-owned utilities, built the data into a computer program that helps public utilities do local and regional cost comparisons and decide whether they should be doing their jobs more efficiently.

If anything, competitive pressures make the data more important, because it can be used to determine if new markets start working properly, said Diane Moody of the American Public Power Association, which represents publicly owned utilities such as the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

"It's not a time for secrecy; it's a time for more openness," she said.

Spurred by fearful private utilities, the information agency has set a March 31 deadline for gathering comments, and it plans to come out with proposed new confidentiality rules in May.

Daugherty of the electric industry group estimates that about 30 percent of the information the government now gathers could hurt private utilities once they start to compete.

Members of his group will be going through government reporting forms line by line, preparing their arguments on each specific piece of information that they believe could be damaging.

He compares the process to changes in airlines, banking and other once-regulated industries. Each time the government gives up control, he said, "a lot of the data has gone away."

Even setting aside any competitive risks, Daugherty said, reporting requirements that were tolerable for regulated monopolies are inappropriate, burdensome and too expensive for a deregulated industry.

After it releases its draft proposal in May, the Energy Information Administration plans to collect further comments and do more fine tuning before changes become effective next January.

The government is asking for written comments to be mailed to John Colligan, Energy Information Administration, EI-524, Forrestal Building, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, DC 20585-0650, e-mailed to jcolliga@eia.doe.gov or faxed to (202) 426-1311.

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