AquAlliance v. United States Bureau of Reclamation, 856 F.3d 101 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (Millet, J.)
Re: Request for records concerning permits for water transfers in California
Disposition: Affirming district court's grant of government's motion for summary judgment
- Exemption 9: The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia holds that "[t]he judgment of the district court upholding the Bureau's withholding of water well location and depth information under Exemption 9 is affirmed." "In determining the applicability of Exemption 9, [the court] 'start[s] with its text.'" "In this case, that is also where [the court] end[s]." "As noted earlier, Exemption 9 permits the Bureau to withhold from disclosure 'geological and geophysical information and data, including maps, concerning wells.'" "On its face, [the requester's] request seeks 'information and data' 'concerning' the depth and location of 'wells,' specifically 'including maps.'" Citing to Black's Law Dictionary, the court notes that "[t]he ordinary meaning of 'wells' includes water wells." The court then finds that "[t]he depth and location of wells straightforwardly qualifies as 'geological and geophysical information[.]'" "Geological and geophysical records document the physical composition and structure of (for present purposes) the Earth, including its subsurface." The court also finds that "[the requester's] argument ["that information should only qualify as 'geological and geophysical' if it (i) is technical or scientific, and (ii) would bestow a competitive advantage on the person who receives it"] fails because there is nothing ambiguous about 'geological and geophysical,' at least not in a way that would permit judicially engrafting a competitive-advantage limitation onto the text." The court also relates that "[the requester] also argues that Exemption 9 was meant to apply only to oil and gas wells, reasoning that, for such wells, geological and geophysical information can have significant value to economic competitors." "The short answer is that – whatever [the requester] believes Congress might have meant – Congress said geological and geophysical information 'concerning wells,' without any such adjectival limitation." "[The requester], in short, asks the court to use 'ambiguous legislative history to muddy clear statutory language[.]'" "That [the court] cannot do." "The proper course, instead, is for [the] court to assume that Congress meant what it said, and said what it meant."