Thousands of emails detail EPA head’s close ties to fossil fuel industry

Read the full story in the Washington Post.

Oklahoma has turned over thousands of pages of emails between former attorney general Scott Pruitt’s office and the energy industry, meeting a deadline set by a judge who ordered the documents’ release following more than two years of effort by an advocacy organization.

The Center for Media and Democracy, which went to court to compel the state to release the emails under public records laws, said Wednesday that they offer more details about the close ties that Pruitt, now administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has long had with the oil and gas industry. (The emails can be viewed here.)

Grants Management: EPA Has Taken Steps to Improve Competition for Discretionary Grants but Could Make Information More Readily Available

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What GAO Found

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) manages competition for its discretionary grants through a process established by its competition policy and implemented by its program and regional offices. Under the policy, offices are to advertise discretionary grant opportunities on Grants.gov—a website for federal grant announcements—and may also advertise using other methods, such as trade journals and e-mail lists. The announcements must describe eligibility and evaluation criteria, and the process may be customized to assess (1) all applications against eligibility criteria and (2) eligible applications for merit against evaluation criteria. Under the policy, EPA established a Grants Competition Advocate, a senior official who provides guidance to and oversight of the offices. EPA officials said this position has been key to improving competition for discretionary grants.

From fiscal years 2013 through 2015, EPA provided nearly $1.5 billion in discretionary grants to about 2,000 unique grantees, with state governments, nonprofits, and Indian tribes receiving the largest shares, according to GAO’s analysis of EPA data. Of the $1.5 billion, $579 million was for new grants subject to the competition policy, and according to EPA, the agency met its performance target to competitively award at least 90 percent of these new grant dollars or awards annually. Some discretionary grants are not subject to the competition policy for several reasons—for example because they are available by law only to Indian tribes. Of the remaining approximately $920 million, $282 million was for new grants not subject to the competition policy, and about $632 million was for amendments to existing grants, such as for added work.

Publicly available information from EPA about its discretionary grants is neither easy to identify nor complete. For example, different information about the grants, such as dollar amounts, is available at four federal websites; but three of these websites do not have a way to search all the grants, and the fourth cannot identify the grants because EPA does not flag them in its submissions to the website. EPA officials plan to better flag these grants in the future; however, to obtain complete information, users would still have to search several websites containing different parts of this information. Also, GAO found that the unofficial reports EPA makes publicly available on the number of applications received for its grant competitions contain limited information. Moreover, these reports are not current because EPA relies on manual processes to collect the information from its offices, which can cause reporting delays. Further, GAO found that although EPA’s internal grants management system has a field for tracking grant types, a lack of clarity in EPA’s guidance may contribute to EPA staff’s inconsistent use of this field. Consequently, EPA cannot easily identify discretionary grants in its system or collect complete and accurate information on them. EPA is transitioning to a new system that is expected to be operational in 2018 and to provide the capability to collect more timely and complete information. However, EPA officials said they do not have plans to use the new system to improve their publicly available reports, which is inconsistent with effective internal and external communication suggested by federal internal control standards. More complete information could help Congress and other decision makers better monitor EPA’s management of discretionary grants.

Why GAO Did This Study

EPA annually awards hundreds of discretionary grants, totaling about $500 million. EPA has the discretion to determine grantees and amounts for these grants, which fund a range of activities, from environmental research to wetlands restoration. EPA awards and manages discretionary grants at 10 headquarters program offices and 10 regional offices. Past reviews by GAO and EPA’s Inspector General found that EPA has faced challenges managing such grants, including procuring insufficient competition for them and providing incomplete public information about them. GAO was asked to review EPA’s management of discretionary grants.

This report examines (1) how EPA manages competition for discretionary grants, (2) how much in discretionary grants EPA provided from fiscal years 2013 through 2015 and to what types of grantees, and (3) the information EPA makes publicly available on discretionary grants. GAO reviewed EPA’s competition policy and guidance, examined internal evaluations of grant applications for competitions that were selected partly because they accounted for large portions of discretionary grant dollars, analyzed EPA data as well as information EPA made available on public websites, and interviewed EPA officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that EPA develop clear guidance for tracking grants and determine how to make more complete information on discretionary grants publicly available. EPA agreed with GAO’s recommendations.

The hearing was titled, ‘Making EPA great again.’ Scientists are afraid the opposite will happen.

Read the full story in the Washington Post.

A hearing held Tuesday by the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology promised to focus on “Making the Environmental Protection Agency great again” — but its panel of industry-affiliated witnesses and its discussion of possible new legislation had some lawmakers and scientists worried the opposite may occur.

The hearing’s focus, broadly, was intended to be an examination of the EPA’s “process for evaluating and using science during its regulatory decision-making activities.”

Grants Management: EPA Partially Follows Leading Practices of Strategic Workforce Planning and Could Take Additional Steps

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What GAO Found

Staffing levels for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants management personnel generally declined during fiscal years 2006 through 2015, but it is unclear how workloads may have changed during this time frame. Specifically, the number of grant specialists and project officers—EPA’s key grants management personnel—who entered information about grant actions into the agency’s automated grants management system at key points in the process—declined by 20 percent and 41 percent, respectively. However, it is unclear how workloads may have changed because available information is contradictory, EPA has not consistently tracked and analyzed key aspects of grants management workload over time, and the agency does not have a process for doing so. Under federal standards for internal control, agencies are to clearly document internal controls. In addition, federal guidance states that agencies should take steps to assess and, as appropriate, resize full-time equivalents (FTE) to achieve the agencies’ missions as effectively and efficiently as possible. Because EPA does not have a documented process that can be consistently applied to obtain workload data across offices, its regional and national program offices allocate FTEs to grants management positions using varying processes, such as assessing “pain points” as they arise and shifting personnel from other groups within a region to manage grants when necessary. Without developing a documented process that can be consistently applied by EPA offices to collect, analyze, and use workload data to inform FTE allocations, EPA cannot track changes in workload or have assurance that it is allocating grants management resources in an effective and efficient manner.

EPA partially follows leading practices of strategic workforce planning for its grants personnel by identifying critical skills and competencies, primarily for grant specialists; developing strategies to address skill and competency gaps by updating training courses as EPA issues new regulations; and taking some steps to monitor and evaluate progress by developing some performance measures for its 2016-2020 Grants Management Plan. However, according to agency officials, EPA has not reviewed project officer critical skills and competencies because of competing priorities. Such a review could help EPA determine training needs to address any gaps identified. GAO has found that leading practices of strategic workforce planning include identifying the critical skills and competencies needed to achieve current and future programmatic results, as well as developing strategies—such as training—to address skill and competency gaps. Using these practices could help EPA ensure that it has people with the right skills to meet the goals of its Grants Management Plan. EPA’s plan also does not contain performance measures to monitor and evaluate recruitment and retention efforts for its grants personnel, or to show how these efforts contribute toward the agency’s human capital goals and programmatic results. GAO has found that monitoring and evaluating progress toward human capital goals is a leading practice. By developing performance measures to track the effectiveness of its recruitment and retention efforts, and collecting performance data for these measures, EPA could enhance its ability to identify both performance shortfalls as well as appropriate corrective actions.

In 2015, EPA awarded roughly $3.9 billion, about 49 percent of its budget, in grants to states, local governments, tribes, and other recipients. These grants supported activities, such as repairing aging water infrastructure. GAO was asked to review how EPA manages its grants workforce.

This report examines (1) how staffing levels and workloads changed for EPA grants management personnel during fiscal years 2006 through 2015, the most recent years for which data were available, and (2) the extent to which EPA follows leading practices of strategic workforce planning in managing its grants workforce. GAO reviewed agency documents; analyzed EPA data; and interviewed officials from headquarters, all 10 regional offices, and a nongeneralizable sample of 3 of 10 national program offices that manage grants, which GAO selected for factors such as size of the offices’ grants workforces and portfolios.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making five recommendations, including that EPA develop documented processes that can be consistently applied by EPA offices to (1) collect and analyze data about grants management workloads and (2) use these data to inform FTE allocations. EPA should also (3) review project officer critical skills and competencies and determine training needs to address gaps and (4) develop recruitment and retention performance measures and collect performance data for these measures. EPA agreed with four of the recommendations and partially agreed with the fifth, which GAO clarified to address EPA’s comments.

Flint residents seek $722M over water crisis

Read the full story from the Detroit News.

More than 1,700 Flint-area residents and property owners have filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the “mishandling” of the city’s water crisis in a legal action seeking more than $722.4 million in damages.

 

When it comes to key waste issues, Pruitt ‘not familiar’ with many specifics

Read the full story at Waste Dive.

During a lengthy Jan. 18 confirmation hearing, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt was asked about his views on climate change and ties to energy companies, but few specifics on waste or recycling topics. Though senators hashed out many issues of interest to the waste industry in a follow-up questionnaire for the potential Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

An analysis of Pruitt’s written responses within a 242-page report from the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee detailed many contentious waste-related issues that could receive federal attention during the Trump administration. Pruitt’s default response on almost all of them was to plead ignorance.

Grant freeze to be narrower, shorter than expected — officials

Read the full story from Greenwire.

The Trump administration’s controversial freeze on U.S. EPA’s massive grant program is expected to end Friday, according to EPA officials.