Exemption 9

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This article is part of a series on Exemptions


Under Exemption 9, an agency may withhold from disclosure geological information concerning wells.[1]

Text of Exemption 9

See also Text of the FOIA

(b) This section does not apply to matters that are— [...]

(9) geological and geophysical information and data, including maps, concerning wells.

Scope of Exemption 9

According to its legislative history, Exemption 9 was enacted to address concerns that geological maps generated during private oil companies’ explorations were not covered by Exemption 4, and that their release would give speculators an advantage over the companies that paid for the exploration.[2]

The least invoked of the FOIA exemptions (and consequently the exemption that has been interpreted the least by federal courts), Exemption 9 often overlaps with Exemption 4, which protects from disclosure trade secrets and confidential, commercial and financial information. Consequently, parties opposing release of information under Exemption 9 often also invoke Exemption 4 with respect to the same information.[3]

One of the few courts interpreting the exemption has held that it applies only to “information of a technical or scientific nature” that relates to “scientific or exploratory findings concerning well drillings.”[4] The court held that the exemption did not apply to “the number, locations, and depths of . . . proposed exploration drill-holes” for uranium, stating — without much elaboration — that such “information falls short of the technical and scientific information envisioned by Congress.”[5]

In contrast, a court upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s withholding of maps that showed the locations of water wells, holding that Exemption 9 applied to information about both privately- and publicly-owned wells.[6] Another court held that information about “ground water inventories, well yield in gallons per minute, and the thickness of the decomposed granite aquifer” contained in a draft environmental assessment was “the type of well water related information” that could be withheld under Exemption 9.[7]

In AquAlliance v. United States Bureau of Reclamation, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held that Exemption 9 applies to "information relating to water-well construction, completion, depth, and location."[8] Relying on the plain text of Exemption 9, the Court held that there was no distinction between oil wells and water wells: "[t]he ordinary meaning of 'wells' includes water wells."[9]

Review of Agency Decision to Release

As in Exemption 4 cases, cases may be litigated under Exemption 9 in the form of “reverse-FOIA suits,” in which a third party opposing release of the information at issue — usually the original submitter of the information — sues the agency to prevent its release. In such suits, the submitter challenges an agency’s decision to release records because the submitter believes that an agency seeks to improperly exercise its discretion to release records that fall within one or more exemptions.[10]

A court reviewing the agency’s decision will determine whether it was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.”[11]

In one instructive reverse-FOIA suit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit examined whether the Federal Power Commission abused its discretion in deciding to disclose gas reserves data that fell within the scope of Exemptions 9 and 4.[12] The court explained that in making this determination, it would examine “whether the Commission abused its discretion in balancing the public and private interests” in disclosure.[13]

Because the Commission had previously granted confidentiality with respect to similar information, issued a regulation stating that trade secret information would not be made public, and stated — on the form requesting the information — that it would generally be kept confidential, the court “engage[d] in a searching inquiry” of the agency’s decision.[14]

The Fifth Circuit first found the Commission gave an overly brief explanation of why the public interest in release outweighed any financial harm to the parties.[15] The Commission found a particularly high public interest in release because it requested the data as part of an investigation into the disparities in reserve figures reported by two sources.[16] In rejecting the producers’ objections to release, the Commission stated that “[t]he regulatory process is a bond of consumer protection and the regulations and rates cannot proceed satisfactorily without full disclosure of the facts upon which the rates are to be determined.”[17]

However, the court held that this statement was too brief to justify a finding that disclosure would “serve[] a legitimate regulatory function.”[18] The court then applied three considerations in determining whether the agency abused its discretion in conducting the balancing test, and found all three factors to weigh in favor of a finding of an abuse.[19]

The first consideration is “whether disclosure of this type of detailed information will significantly aid the Commission in fulfilling its functions.”[20] In that case, the court noted that it was questionable whether natural gas consumers — unlike other energy producers — would be able to “reasonably avail themselves” of the data for use in Commission proceedings.[21] The Commission inadequately demonstrated the existence of outside consultants who would be available to assist consumers in using the data.[22]

Second, the agency must “consider not only the harm done to the producers by releasing this information but the harm to the public generally.”[23] The companies opposing release successfully argued that release of the information would curtail gas exploration, as the opportunity to gain exclusive knowledge of potential gas reserves was a major incentive for such exploration, and the agency failed to address this potential harm .[24]

The third consideration — the “most important[],” according to the court in this reverse-FOIA case — is “whether there are alternatives to full disclosure that will provide consumers with adequate knowledge to fully participate in the Commission’s proceedings but at the same time protect the interests of the producers.”[25] As the Commission had not discussed whether any such alternatives existed, the court found this consideration weighed against the agency’s determination as well.[26]

Strategies for challenging Exemption 9 withholdings

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Recent district court opinions on Exemption 9

Recent district court cases regarding this topic from TRAC's FOIA Project. Visit their issue search page for more options.

External Links

See Also


  1. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(9).
  2. H.R. REP. NO. 89-1497, at 11 (1966).
  3. See, e.g., Pennzoil Co. v. Fed. Power Comm’n, 534 F.2d 627, 629-30 (5th Cir. 1976);Black Hills Alliance v. U.S. Forest Serv., 603 F.Supp. 117, 119 (D.S.D. 1984); Starkey v. U.S. Dep’t of Interior, 238 F.Supp.2d 1188, 1194-96 (S.D. Cal. 2002).
  4. Black Hills Alliance, 603 F.Supp. at 122.
  5. Id.
  6. Nat’l Res. Def. Council v. U.S. Dep’t of Def., 388 F.Supp.2d 1086, 1107-08 (C.D. Cal. 2005).
  7. Starkey, 238 F.Supp.2d at 1196.
  8. AquAlliance v. United States Bureau of Reclamation, No. 15-5325, 2017 WL 1842507, at *2 (D.C. Cir. May 9, 2017)
  9. AquAlliance v. United States Bureau of Reclamation, No. 15-5325, 2017 WL 1842507, at *2 (D.C. Cir. May 9, 2017)
  10. CNA Fin. Corp. v. Donovan, 830 F.2d 1132, 1133 n.1 (D.C. Cir. 1987).
  11. 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A).
  12. Pennzoil Co., 534 F.2d at 631-32.
  13. Id. at 632.
  14. Id. at 631.
  15. Id. at 631-32.
  16. Id. at 628-29.
  17. Id. at 629.
  18. Id. at 632.
  19. See id.
  20. Id.
  21. Id.
  22. Id.
  23. Id.
  24. Id.
  25. Id.
  26. Id.