For California utilities, ensuring their information stays confidential just got harder. On August 25, 2016, the California Public Utilities Commission issued a decision updating the process for submitting potentially confidential documents to the Commission. The Commission intended for this process to ensure consistency across industries and to expedite Commission review of California Public Records Act requests.

On balance, the new process shifts the burden for preserving confidential documents to the utilities. In the past, utilities would submit data to the Commission either with a marking to show it was confidential, or with the unspoken agreement with Commission staff that certain types of documents were confidential even without a marking. In light of this new decision, utilities now have to mark all documents, specify the reason it’s confidential, and, depending on whether the document is submitted within or outside of a formal proceeding, file a motion or declaration certifying the confidentiality of the documents. Further, if only certain information in a document is confidential, utilities must designate as confidential only that information rather than the entire document.

Moreover, the Commission has “greased the wheels” for handing Public Records Act request, and releasing utility data. The Commission has delegated authority for reviewing requests for confidential treatment of documents to the Commission’s Legal Division, rather than requiring the Commission itself to review and issue and an order regarding the release of potentially confidential information.

While this decision presents a significant challenge for many utilities, this shift in Commission policy is not entirely surprising. In the wake of the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion in 2010, public outcry and litigation cropped up over the Commission’s Public Records Act request process. While trying to balance the requirements of the Public Records Act and its statutory duty to preserve confidential utility data, under Public Utilities Code§ 583, the Commission has seemingly responded to pressure from the public, and shifted towards the Public Records Act side of the scale.

This decision was an interim decision, and the proceeding remains open for further refinement and improvement of the Commission’s processes (e.g. updating General Order 66-C).