People sometimes get irritated when newspapers say information on a topic isn’t available. “You’re a reporter,” they say. “Dig for it.”
Sadly, the resources for digging are becoming more scarce. For a few years you could often find gold with an access to information request, but governments are getting bolder at refusing these requests.
Here are a couple of recent examples.
This spring I asked the National Research Council for any recent documents it might have on genetically modified wheat, which is not grown in Canada today but is under development in other countries, including the U.S. Seemed like a good question to ask.
They had 93 pages, but the package I received was suspiciously thin. The first few pages were innocuous e-mails – possibly innocuous because sections were blacked out.
Then came the kicker: A note saying that “pages 6 through 93 have been severed in their entirety …”
Severed is the official word for “kept secret.” A footnote says they either contain confidential advice to government or secrets that would make a government body lose its competitive edge if revealed. I do know the document included a business plan for developing wheat, but that’s all.
I thought that was about the least informative response it’s humanly possible to receive in an access to information request. Boy, was I wrong.
My next attempt centred on Ontario’s Feed-In Tariff, the system that pays generous subsidies for solar and wind power. Ontario has a good many “micro” generators of solar power; it takes a sunny rooftop and some panels.
They can get up to 80 cents per kilowatt hour they generate. Nuclear stations get about six cents.
It got me wondering: What if someone just ran a wire from the wall socket in his house back to the grid? What if he sold back to Ontario, for 80 cents, power that he bought from Hydro Ottawa for 13 cents?
My request for documents on potential solar fraud reached the Ontario Power Authority on April 9.
Three months later, they politely told me to get lost. Here, have a look:
While there are no records of actual fraud, they said, “Two records were located that are risk mitigation plan documents prepared by the OPA (documents that identify, assess, and prioritize risks and that identify resources to minimize, monitor, and control the probability of their occurrence and their impact if they occur) …
“The OPA is withholding the two records in their entirety on the basis that, (i) to the extent that they deal with the potential for fraud in solar generation, the records are exempt from release under section 18(1)(d) of the Act, in that their release would facilitate fraud and thus would be harmful to the OPA’s and the electricity ratepayers’ financial interests.” A second part is withheld because it’s irrelevant to my request.
Fine, so there is a potential for fraud. As a consumer, I want to know this. But then the OPA can’t tell me how this works because it would give crooks ideas?
I have news for them. Criminals already know how to be criminals.
Energy analyst Tom Adams finds another irony.
“The OPA administers legislation that causes completely unnecessary economic harm to ratepayers,” he says.
Wind power that was competitively procured in the period 2005-2006 for about 9 cents is now acquired under the non-competitive FIT program for 13.5 cents.
Developers used to pay for grid upgrades, and today consumers pay.
“Now, in responding to a request clearly intended to inform the public about fraud risks, the OPA covers the government’s ass with this reference to the FIPPA legislation (on protecting the financial interests of Ontario).
He adds: “The risk of solar fraud is real. Other jurisdictions are seeing it. The physical equipment and wiring changes to commit solar fraud are trivially cheap and easy.”
Most reporters will tell you that it’s becoming rare to find out useful information through these access requests. Package after package comes back from governments of all levels with little or nothing in it. It’s as though the access people are sitting in an office asking themselves: How much can we keep secret this time?
Maybe it’s because their bosses take control. My solar power decision was personally made by the CEO of the Ontario Power Authority.
Oh well. I did get a full answer to one request. I asked the National Research Council for e-mails relating to a story I wrote last spring. They sent more than 150 pages – half relating to my request for an interview with the NRC’s new president (unsuccessful) and half analysis of the story afterwards.
If one news story generates 150 pages of analysis, there must be piles of more valuable documents sitting in vaults somewhere, just begging to be released. But I’m not holding my breath.
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