08/30/2012 12:28 EDT | Updated 10/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Board hears arguments in Nova Scotia Power's bid to prevent release of audit

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia Power is asking the province's Utility and Review Board to keep redacted information secret in an audit that alleges it overcharged customers until after a hearing is held later this year on whether criticisms in the report are valid.

The public utility told the board on Thursday that it doesn't want portions of the audit blacked out indefinitely, but only until the board releases a decision on the merits of the audit in October.

"What we're hoping for and asking for today is full disclosure of all of the facts on all of the issues," Nova Scotia Power CEO Rob Bennett said outside the hearing.

"We're trying to protect customers ... by being reasonable and by being open and transparent at the right time when all of the information is available."

The audit conducted by the Liberty Consulting Group, which was released in July, said Nova Scotia Power owes its customers a refund because it paid $22 million too much for fuel over the past two years.

Peter Downard, the utility’s lawyer, argued at the hearing that the audit is defamatory, would violate the privacy of employees and break contractual confidentiality.

John Merrick, the province's consumer advocate, slammed the company's assertion that the general public may not be able to understand the information if it was released, saying it undermines the public's intelligence.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie told the hearing if the information remains redacted, the public would lose confidence in the utility and that it would “fuel their distrust.” He said it’s in the public’s interest to know if they overpaid for power and the reasons why.

The board hasn't given an indication when it will decide whether the information will remain blacked out.

Premier Darrell Dexter has said if the audit is accurate, then "every cent" should be immediately repaid to Nova Scotia Power's customers.

Nova Scotia Power has asked the Utility and Review Board to approve a three per cent rate increase for 2013 and 2014, which will be discussed at a hearing in September.

Rene Gallant, vice-president of regulatory affairs for Nova Scotia Power, has said the company may be forced to lower power bills by about 1.5 per cent if the provincial regulator accepts the audit's findings.