A federally sanctioned propane trade association, the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC), is refusing to disclose records about its operations, despite its obligations to do so under the Propane Education and Research Act.
PERC is under scrutiny after the New York Times reported on PERC’s self-described “provocative anti-electrification” campaign, which measures in the millions of dollars and makes up a large percentage of the organization’s budget. Oversight of PERC is the responsibility of the Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce, but Government Accountability Office reports have found that both agencies have not exercised their oversight responsibilities.
In response to the revelations of PERC’s activities, four U.S. Senators and several Representatives have written two letters to Secretary Granholm, requesting the Department of Energy carry out its oversight responsibilities in line with the Propane Education and Research Act of 1996 (PERA).
The Department of Energy told the New York Times its plans to “work with our congressional partners to examine these allegations.”
On November 8th, the Energy and Policy Institute (EPI) delivered a records request to PERC at its November Council Meeting in Destin, FL, following procedures outlined by PERA and PERC’s Policies, Rules, and Procedures. Despite initially providing some records to EPI, senior staff at PERC did not provide most of the requested documents.
EPI requested specific records, including PERC’s “council notebooks” and slide decks, which are provided to each councilor and displayed at the publicly accessible council meetings; PERC is withholding those materials.
EPI independently obtained several PERC council slide decks and council notebooks, and has made those records available to the public. EPI requested PERC’s council books dating to 2020.
After EPI requested PERC’s further compliance with the request, PERC retained the law firm Squire Patton Boggs to review EPI’s request, writing, “[t]he balance of your request requires deeper consideration and to illustrate how seriously we take this effort we have engaged our outside counsel in the review.”
Shawn Stack, PERC’s Vice President Finance, Data, Technology sent the response on January 5th, the day after the New York Times contacted PERC requesting comment, according to a PERC statement.
EPI requested PERC’s approved budgets, which are labeled as dockets by PERC, but only received a limited response. An attorney for Squire Patton Boggs responded to EPI on January 31st and provided only a small set of records based on a narrow interpretation of the PERA Act. Squire Patton Boggs stated the remainder of the request was “beyond the scope of public access.”
According to the PERA Act, “minutes, books, and records that clearly reflect all of the acts and transactions of the Council” should be made available to the public upon the request.
PERC deletes records
Some dockets provided to EPI, including Docket 23364, were previously accessible on PERC’s website, but were since deleted after the New York Times provided a hyperlink to the document. Docket 23364, labeled as “2022 – New York Propane Consumer Marketing Program,” describes a nearly $900,000 grant application to “specifically target the electrification movement…” in response to proposed electrification legislation in New York. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has previously raised concerns about PERC’s involvement in political activities, noting that PERC is prohibited from lobbying activities.
Dozens of other links from PERC’s sitemap, which EPI documented on December 1, have since been deleted. Many of these links included PERC Council presentation slides and council books, which are records that EPI specifically requested.
When asked about the records removed from the website and the process for obtaining dockets, PERC told EPI:
“The portals on our website were designed to allow certain audiences (council members in this instance) access to information behind a gateway that are not open to the public because they contain confidential documents such as proprietary information from our equipment manufacturer partners. We realized there was an error in our security settings, so we applied our security policy to those pages. PERC follows PERA as it relates to documents that are made available for public disclosure. Approved dockets are made available to the public upon request and allowing for a reasonable processing time.“
PERC records are needed for transparency
EPI is requesting the records to understand PERC’s budget, which has come under scrutiny by the GAO in 2003, 2010, and 2015. An EPI review of PERC’s budget found increased spending on the marketing and advertising, which resulted in budget cuts to “safety and training” and “product development and research” expense categories. PERC reduced safety and training expenses from 12.7% to 9.3% of the overall budget since 2021. It reduced product development and research expenses by even more, from 21.5% to 12%. The high percentage of spending on marketing, which PERC sometimes refers to as “consumer education,” was a key concern of the Government Accountability Office in its previous reports.