Senate Bill in Georgia Seeks to Expand Scope of Trade Secret Protection

On February 2, 2016, Georgia State Senator Hunter Hill introduced Senate Bill 321 in the Georgia Senate. The bill is entitled “Commerce and Trade; state government; protections against public disclosure of certain information.” The bill has 36 co-sponsors, all of whom, like Hill, are Republican. 

According to its sponsors, the purpose of Senate Bill 321 is to prevent public disclosure of energy consumption information that businesses must now report to city officials under a new ordinance. In April 2015, Atlanta’s City Council adopted by unanimous vote a “Commercial Buildings Energy Efficiency Ordinance,” which requires owners of buildings larger than 25,000 square feet to benchmark and report their properties’ energy use each year. To protect this information, the Senate bill seeks to change the definition of “trade secret” in the Georgia Trade Secrets Act of 1990 to include “monetary, operational, or consumption data related to a person’s use of public utilities.”

According to a City of Atlanta press release, the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Sustainability created the ordinance “to reduce the city’s energy footprint while also creating jobs.” It is part of Atlanta’s work with The City Energy Project, a national initiative from the Institute for Market Transformation and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which aim to improve the energy efficiency of buildings in major cities across America.  Other cities participating in the initiative include Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Salt Lake City. In Atlanta, there are 2,350 buildings that are now subject to this ordinance, representing 80 percent of the city’s commercial sector.

Under the newly introduced Senate Bill 321, while businesses would still be required to disclose their energy use to the City of Atlanta, the city would be able to refuse to disclose that information to the public in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The bill has sparked significant debate in Atlanta: environmentalists complain that the bill would protect a “very small portion of the one-percenters” and “really greedy developers,” while the bill’s supporters say it strikes a balance between monitoring utility use and protecting the privacy of those who want the information to remain confidential.

The other cities involved in the City Energy Project all appear to have passed or are in the process of passing reporting ordinances similar to Atlanta’s. If Senate Bill 321 becomes law in Georgia, it will be interesting to see whether those cities also face pressure from the business community to maintain the confidentiality of their reports.