Court Orders Government to Release Energy Task Force Secrets
WASHINGTON (February 27, 2002) -- A federal district court today notified NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) that it has ordered the Department of Energy (DOE) to release secret documents related to Vice President Cheney's energy task force. NRDC called the court opinion, which was in response to an NRDC lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a "stinging condemnation" of the agency's refusal to obey the law (see attached opinion).
"Justice was finally served," said NRDC senior attorney Sharon Buccino. "By forcing the Department of Energy to quit its stonewalling, the court has protected the public's fundamental right to know what its government is doing." The task force information, she added, is directly relevant to the current energy debate in Congress.
NRDC originally asked the agency last April for basic information about its role in the Cheney task force, officially called the National Energy Policy Development Group, which was commissioned by President Bush in January 2001. DOE was a leading agency working with the task force to develop the president's policy.
In her opinion, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler described DOE as "woefully tardy," and called its initial response to NRDC "virtually meaningless." She also observed that the agency had "no legal, or practical, justification for working at a glacial pace" to fulfill NRDC's request, noting that "the material which [NRDC] seeks is of extraordinary public interest." The judge also stated, "It is very hard to discern from the declaration of the Department's FOIA Officer what in the world Department personnel were doing from July 2001 through December 2001 when they were conducting 'periodic' reviews of the 2,149 documents (comprising 7,584 pages) deemed responsive to the request."
Judge Kessler directed the government to turn over the "vast majority" of the documents requested by NRDC by March 25, 2002. NRDC expects to make public -- for the first time since the task force was formed more than year ago -- the names of participants, dates of meetings, and the topics discussed. That information will expose which energy companies or industry lobbyists influenced the work DOE staff did on the Bush-Cheney energy plan. The plan, unveiled on May 17, 2001, included more than $34 billion in subsidies for polluting industries -- primarily oil and gas, coal and nuclear power.
"An honest government requires transparency," said Buccino. "Unfortunately, it took a court order to force open a door that this administration fought hard to keep closed. After being shut out of the process for nearly a year, the public will finally get to see if the administration acted on behalf of the public interest in formulating its energy plan, or for the exclusive benefit of a few industry friends like Enron and other big energy companies."
The judge will continue to oversee this case to ensure that the agency turns over the requested materials. If the government fails to release the documents as ordered, administration officials can be held in contempt of court and risk going to jail.
NRDC is represented by the Washington, D.C. law firm of Meyer and Glitzenstein.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
January 30, 2002, "NRDC Asks Court to Force Immediate Release of Secret Energy Task Force Details"
January 24, 2002, "Administration Snubs Lawsuit Seeking Facts on Secret Energy Task Force"
December 12, 2001, "NRDC Sues Department of Energy to Expose Cheney Task Force Secrets"
NRDC court papers filed January 30, 2002 in PDF format, 107k
Copy of the original complaint in PDF format, 16k