The MidAmerican Energy Company office in Sioux City, Iowa.
The MidAmerican Energy Company office in Sioux City, Iowa. Credit: Tony Webster / Creative Commons

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Correction: The docket in which stakeholders are seeking access to MidAmerican documents was opened by the Iowa Utilities Board to examine issues found to be outside the scope of an earlier docket related to environmental compliance for its coal plants. An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the docket’s origin.

Iowa’s largest electric utility is appealing an administrative ruling that it must share long-range resource planning documents with environmental groups and other stakeholders who agree not to divulge confidential information.

MidAmerican Energy filed the appeal on Dec. 8, the day it was expected to comply with a Nov. 23 order from the Iowa Utilities Board giving three environmental groups and two large customers access to company information.

The utility’s challenge is the latest volley in a broader fight over transparency and accountability surrounding MidAmerican’s clean energy transition. Despite being a national leader in wind power, the company continues to operate five coal-fired power plants that critics suspect are not economical or necessary.

“MidAmerican has been working to slow down this process and avoid outside input or additional oversight of its plan,” said Michael Schmidt, an attorney for the Iowa Environmental Council, one of the groups seeking access to the utility’s documents.

A spokesperson for MidAmerican said the information at stake is “proprietary and legally protected,” and that its release could hurt the company’s competitive advantage — and, by extension, harm customers.

Environmental and customer advocates are in the dark about the utility’s long-range plans in part because, unlike most states, Iowa does not require utilities to regularly file what’s known as an integrated resources plan. Those dockets typically provide a forum for utilities, state regulators, and other stakeholders to debate load forecasts and generation plans.

In the absence of those routine planning dockets every couple of years, the main opportunity stakeholders have to debate a utility’s direction happens around rate cases, which can be infrequent. MidAmerican hasn’t sought a rate case since 2013 and is not expected to do so anytime soon.

The current docket, in which the access to documents is in dispute, follows a conversation about the utility’s compliance with coal plant regulations. Iowa utilities are required to file plans every other year that explain how they will keep their coal-fired power plants in compliance with state and federal environmental regulations over the following two years. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the state’s Office of Consumer Advocate must sign off on the plans before regulators approve them.

In MidAmerican’s most recent coal compliance docket, the consumer advocate asked whether the most cost-effective way to comply with regulations might be to shut down coal plants and invest in other generation sources. The office eventually proposed a settlement with MidAmerican in which its coal plan was approved but a new, docket was opened to discuss broader issues about the utility’s long-range generation plans.

The Iowa Utilities Board rejected the settlement but opted to open a new docket to address issues beyond the scope of the coal docket. That’s where the action has taken place since May. The Sierra Club, Iowa Environmental Council, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center joined the docket, along with Facebook and Google, which operate large data centers in MidAmerican’s service territory.

In a typical contested case, such as one for determining rates, all of those joiners would have access under a nondisclosure agreement to view confidential information submitted by the utility as part of its case. In this case, though, the utility argues that the purpose is only “information gathering.” Because of that distinction, it argues, outside parties should not be privy to proprietary information.

A staff lawyer for the Iowa Utilities Board, without ruling whether it was a contested or informational case, concluded that MidAmerican should be required to privately share the information with the environmental and customer groups. The utility has now appealed and is asking for an administrative law judge to intervene, saying the proposed order contains errors.

“At every step in the process, MidAmerican seems to be as resistant as possible,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which wants an opportunity to analyze and provide feedback on the utility’s plans to the utility board.

MidAmerican spokesperson Tina Hoffman said the company is simply trying to maintain the privacy that the law allows. 

“In this matter, we contend the documents at issue are proprietary and legally protected that, if disclosed publicly, could impair MidAmerican’s competitive advantage, increase project costs borne by customers, and ultimately disadvantage our customers,” Hoffman said. “MidAmerican is properly and appropriately engaging the board on this matter, as the law allows.”

Responses to MidAmerican’s appeal are due Dec. 22.

Karen Uhlenhuth

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.