30 Years after Exxon Valdez, 9 Years after Deepwater Horizon: What We Found

Thirty years ago this month, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker hit a reef and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska. In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded and sank, causing a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In today’s WatchBlog, we check in on the status of restoration and oil pollution research efforts. Read on and listen to our podcast with Frank Rusco, a director in our Natural Resources and Environment team, to learn more.

Who foots the bill for oil spills

Following the Exxon Valdez spill, Congress enacted the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which

  1. established a “polluter pays” system, whereby the responsible party must pay for oil spill cleanup costs and damages,
  2. allowed federal, state, and other officials to act on behalf of the public as trustees to recover those costs and manage cleanup and restoration efforts, and
  3. created a multi-agency committee to coordinate oil pollution research.

In the wake of both oil spills, federal and state trustees settled with responsible parties to resolve certain claims, resulting in

  • $900 million to a restoration trust fund for damage assessment, cleanup, litigation, and restoration after the Exxon Valdez spill, and
  • $8.8 billion to a restoration trust fund to address natural resource damages from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Status of restoration efforts

Here’s what we found when we checked in on the status of restoration efforts.

Exxon Valdez
As of January 2018, the trustee council had used about 86% of the Exxon Valdez restoration trust fund, mostly on habitat protection and restoring damaged natural resources.

All but 5 of the 32 damaged natural resources and human services had recovered or were recovering. However, the Pacific herring, for example, hasn’t recovered yet.

Further, in May 2018, we watched researchers excavate 3 pits in the spill area—30 years later, there was still oil below the beach’s surface. Researcher collects lingering oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill on a beach in Alaska in May 2018Deepwater Horizon
As of December 2017, the trustee council had used 13% of the Deepwater Horizon restoration trust fund, mostly on habitat protection, enhancing recreation, such as building boat ramps and other recreational facilities. Most of the restoration activities are still being planned.

Oil spill research

From FY11 through FY17, agencies from the research committee have funded over 100 oil spill research projects per year. These projects focus on preventing, preparing for, responding to, and restoring the environment after oil spills.

Agency officials told us that the committee has helped increase communication and understanding of the oil spill research community, identify research gaps, and leverage resources. However, we found that the interagency committee does not coordinate with relevant trustee councils. In fact, some trustee council members didn’t know the committee existed.

We recommended that the research committee coordinate with the trustee councils to help the groups share information and leverage resources.

To learn more about our work, check out our recent report.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Frank Rusco at ruscof@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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DOD: Prioritizing Amid Changing Threats

The 2018 National Defense Strategy (which guides the military’s defense priorities) calls for the Department of Defense (DOD) to urgently develop a lethal, resilient, and rapidly adapting joint force in order to address growing threats to U.S. security. But how does an agency as large as DOD figure out what it needs in order to adapt to growing threats?

Today’s WatchBlog looks at how DOD provides senior leaders with the information they need to make tough decisions about the size and capabilities of the military.

Aligning needs with strategy

Similar to any agency, DOD has to balance competing priorities when building its budget request. Decisions about whether to buy more ships for the Navy or combat vehicles for the Army, for example, can have a big effect on the military services’ ability to carry out their missions.

To help senior leaders make informed choices, DOD designed an analytic process—called Support for Strategic Analysis (SSA)—that was intended to help DOD evaluate its force structure needs (such as personnel and equipment) and develop its budgets to meet the priorities of the National Defense Strategy.

However, we found that SSA has been unable to provide senior leaders with the timely and comprehensive analyses they need to adjust the military’s size and capabilities to meet defense priorities. We found 3 main challenges:

  • It was difficult to develop a common “starting point” for force structure analysis;
  • The military services’ analyses largely supported the status quo; and,
  • The process did not provide a way to compare options and identify tradeoffs across DOD.

Comparison of Support for Strategic Analysis Design and Implementation

A stark warning

Having a functioning process to determine military needs is critical for national security. The National Defense Strategy issued a stark warning: failure to adapt will rapidly result in a force that is irrelevant to the threats it will face.

DOD has struggled in the past to improve this process, but has recently reinvigorated its efforts. We made three recommendations to help address the challenges we identified as DOD works to improve its analytic support to senior leaders.

Read our report to learn more.


 

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GAO Reports by the Numbers: Natural Resources and Environment

From environmental issues to agriculture to radioactive substances, our Natural Resources and Environment team reports on topics that impact the natural world around us, the food we eat, and the disposal of nuclear waste, among other things.

To get a better idea of the breadth of the issues we look at, here’s a roundup of facts from some recent reports. For more details on each fact, click on the answer to go to the original report.

As of March 2018, how many barrels of crude oil were held in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve—the world’s largest government-owned stockpile of emergency crude oil? (665 million barrels)

How much of DOE’s work is accomplished through contracts? (About 90 percent of its $30 billion annual budget)

How many gallons of radioactive waste is the Department of Energy responsible for treating or disposing? (About 90 million gallons)

How much does DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration plan to spend to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile over the next 10 years? ($107.8 billion)

How many people are sickened each year by Salmonella and Campylobacter—two foodborne pathogens—in the United States? (Approximately 2 million)

Since 2005, how much has the federal government spent on disaster assistance –a key source of federal fiscal exposure expected to increase as extreme weather events intensify and become more frequent? (About $430 billion)

In 2017, how much timber was sold from federally-managed forests? (About $253 million)


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Visualizing Relationships in Department of Energy Contracting

GAO graphics iconAbout 90% of the Department of Energy’s $30 billion budget goes to contracts which help the Department carry out its broad range of programs related to nuclear security, science, energy, nuclear waste cleanup, and more.

Contracting isn’t always as simple as one contractor carrying out all of the activities needed. Multiple companies, universities, and other entities can join together to bid on a contract, becoming a “party to” a contract. Additionally, certain contract activities can be subcontracted. As you can see below, contract ownership can be quite complex, making it difficult to monitor these relationships and mitigate potential conflicts of interest when necessary.

Check out our recent interactive graphic, which lets you examine the relationships between and among the many actors involved with these contracts. To learn more about DOE contracting, visit the full report page.


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GAO’s Information Technology & Cybersecurity Team

GAO logoGAO’s workforce is organized largely by subject area, with most employees working in one of our 15 mission teams. Today we’ll be putting the spotlight on our Information Technology & Cybersecurity (ITC) team, which helps the government respond to the challenges of managing the more than $90 billion spent on federal information technology (IT) every year.

ITC recently changed its name from “Information Technology” to better reflect the significant body of work the team does on cybersecurity issues. Read on to learn more about those issues and others that ITC focuses on.

Reports

ITC’s mission is to provide insight into government IT purchases and operations, cybersecurity, and the collection and dissemination of quality information.

The team’s work examines federal efforts to:

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Impact

ITC’s recommendations saved taxpayers over $2.2 billion in fiscal year 2018. The team’s directors also testified at 17 congressional hearings and participated in 7 hearings with other GAO teams.

A Closer Look at an ITC Team report: Urgent Actions Are Needed to Address Cybersecurity Challenges Facing the Nation

Federal agencies and the nation’s critical infrastructures—such as energy, transportation systems, communications, and financial services—depend on information technology systems to carry out operations. So, it’s vital to public confidence and national security, prosperity, and well-being that these systems are secure.

In ITC’s recent report, the team identified 4 major cybersecurity challenges, as well as critical actions needed to address them.

Figure Showing Ten Critical Actions Needed to Address Four Major Cybersecurity Challenges

Because of increasing cyber-based threats and ongoing security incursions, information security is one of GAO’s government-wide high-risk areas.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Valerie Melvin at melvinv@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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GAO’s 2019 High-Risk List Update

GAO's High Risk List LogoToday we released our 2019 High Risk List, which includes 35 areas that we consider to be at high risk for waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement, or in need of transformation.

Since our 2017 report, the rankings for more than half of the areas on the list remain largely unchanged, with 3 regressing. In addition, 7 areas improved, 2 to the point of coming off the list.

Listen to Chris Mihm, Managing Director of our Strategic Issues team, discuss some highlights from our latest update, and read on for more:

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Additions to the list

We’ve added 2 new high-risk areas to our list since 2017:

Shelby Oakley, a director in our Contracting and National Security Acquisitions team, shares more about the VA acquisition management area in this video:

Areas needing special attention

This year, we singled out 9 areas that need special attention from policymakers:

  • Cybersecurity
  • The federal role in housing finance
  • The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation’s insurance programs
  • VA health care
  • Mission critical skills gaps in 16 areas
  • The 2020 Census
  • Areas relating to health care and tax law enforcement that involve billions of dollars in improper payments each year
  • Management of IT acquisitions and operations
  • The yawning tax gap

Areas removed from the list

Two areas showed enough progress this year to be removed from the High Risk List entirely:

  • DOD supply chain management: DOD took steps to improve the visibility of physical inventories, receipt processing, cargo tracking, and unit moves. Improved asset visibility has saved millions of dollars and allowed DOD to better meet mission needs.
  • Mitigating gaps in satellite data: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and DOD made significant strides in mitigating potential gaps in satellite data needed for weather forecasting.

High Risk at a glance

We update our High Risk report biannually, at the start of each new Congress, for lawmakers to use in setting their oversight agendas.

We use five criteria to assess progress on high-risk areas:

  • leadership commitment,
  • agency capacity,
  • an action plan,
  • monitoring efforts, and
  • demonstrated progress.

Watch our short video for a brief overview of the High Risk List:

When the High Risk List first launched in 1990, there were 14 areas. Over the years, there have been 48 additions, 26 removals, and 2 areas that were consolidated.

The federal government has made progress in addressing areas on our High Risk List over the last 13 years. Our work has saved nearly $350 billion in taxpayer money (an average of about $27 billion a year). In FY18, this number was $47 billion—the highest we’ve ever reported.

Learn more in our full report or on our High Risk page.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact J. Christopher Mihm at mihmj@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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What’s Trending in Gig Employment

Photo of Ride Sharing in ActionMillions of American workers no longer have traditional, full-time, year-round employment. Instead, they’re joining the ‘gig’ economy—stringing together various jobs to make ends meet.

Today’s WatchBlog discusses what is and isn’t known about this evolving group of nontraditional workers. Read on and listen to our podcast with Cindy Brown Barnes, a director in our Education, Workforce, and Income Security team, to learn more.

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What is gig employment?

There is no federal definition of gig employment. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures the number of workers in 3 categories that we collectively refer to as “nontraditional workers”:

  • Contingent —temporary workers
  • Alternative—independent contractors, on-call workers, or temp agency workers
  • Electronically-mediated—workers who get gigs through websites or mobile apps

Some workers can fall into more than one of these categories. For instance, someone who drives for a ride-share company while waiting to start a new job would be considered both contingent and electronically-mediated.

Figure Showing Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Definitions of Contingent, Alternative, and Electronically-Mediated Employment Overlap

BLS surveys may not accurately measure gig employment

BLS conducts surveys to track trends among nontraditional workers. In its 2017 survey, BLS found fewer contingent—or temporary—workers than in its 2005 survey. However, it stands to reason that there should have been an increase in contingent workers during those 12 years due to the recent rise in “electronically-mediated” employment, such as ride-sharing. So, the survey may be missing some key parts of the evolving labor market.

BLS did add four questions to the 2017 survey to try to capture people who find jobs on websites and apps. However, there were issues with many of the responses to these new questions and it’s unclear whether the data is accurate.

We also found that BLS’s 2017 survey data only measured workers’ main jobs for contingent and alternative employment. So, BLS could be undercounting workers that use these positions as side jobs. The survey also only asked respondents about their work in the past week and may not have captured supplemental and occasional work.

Adjusting the survey

BLS is working on getting a better picture of nontraditional employment. It enlisted help from an expert national statistics committee to evaluate the survey and design a new survey supplement, which should be done March 2020.

To read more about what we found, check out our recent report.


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Emerging Threats to the United States

The United States faces many threats to our political, economic, military, and social systems that could hurt national security.

Federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security, as well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, identified a number of these long-range, emerging threats, which fall under 4 broad categories:

  • Foreign adversaries’ political and military developments
  • Dual-use technologies
  • New weapons
  • Climate events and demographic changes

Today’s WatchBlog explores.

Figure Showing GAO's Broad Categories for 26 Long-Range Emerging Threats Identified by DOD, State, DHS, and ODNI

Global expansion by foreign adversaries

Our adversaries are developing new political and military strategies to advance their interests, which may or may not be intended to harm the United States.

biotechFor instance:

  • China is marshalling its diplomatic, economic, and military resources to facilitate its rise as a regional and global power—and it could challenge U.S. access to air, space, cyberspace, and maritime domains. China’s use of cyberspace and electronic warfare could also hurt various U.S. systems and operations.
  • Russia is increasing its capacity to challenge the United States in multiple domains, including attempting to launch computer-based directed energy attacks (i.e. electronic warfare) against U.S. military assets. Russia is also expanding its military and political presence in key locations around the world.

Dual-use technologies

Dual-use technologies are those that are developed by governments or the private sector for benign purposes, but which could also be used to inflict harm. In an adversary’s hands, these technologies may pose a risk to the United States.

For example:

  • Quantum communications—the ability to transmit information encoded in quantum states of light and matter—could enable adversaries to develop secure communications that U.S. personnel would not be able to intercept or decrypt because the quantum states cannot be replicated. It may also allow adversaries to decrypt information, which could help them target U.S. personnel and military operations.
  • Biotechnology can be used to alter genes or create DNA to modify plants, animals, and humans. Such technology could enhance the performance of military personnel or be used to create new chemical and biological weapons.

New weapons

Advances in weapons may also be used by our adversaries to inflict harm upon the United States.

For instance:

  • China and Russia are pursuing hypersonic weapons –a class of weapons that can exceed five times the speed of sound—because their speed, altitude, and maneuverability may defeat most missile defense systems. These weapons can also be used to improve long-range conventional and nuclear strike capabilities, and they have no existing countermeasures.
  • Russia has made significant advancements in submarine technology and tactics to escape detection by U.S. forces. Additionally, China is developing underwater acoustic systems—which could provide greater undersea situational awareness—that could coordinate swarm attacks (the use of large quantities of simple and expendable assets to overwhelm opponents).

Climate and demographic changes

Weather events and demographic changes don’t have an adversary behind them, but they can still harm the United States.

For example:

  • Governments in megacities (i.e., over 10 million people) across Asia, Latin America, and Africa may not have the capacity to provide adequate resources and infrastructure in response to natural or man-made disasters. Consequently, mass migration events could occur and threaten regional stability, undermine governments, and strain U.S. military and civilian responses.
  • Extreme weather events—such as hurricanes and megadroughts—could intensify and affect food security, energy resources, and the health care sector. For instance, diminishing permafrost could expand habitats for pathogens that cause disease. Additionally, the loss of Arctic sea ice could open previously closed sea routes, potentially increasing Russian and Chinese access to the region and challenging the U.S.’s freedom of navigation.

Watch our video showing the impact of floods on a DOD Installation.

To learn more about these and other emerging threats, check out our full report.


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Big bank regulators at risk of influence?

Photo of People at Work“Regulatory capture”—when regulators act in the interest of the industry they’re regulating, rather than the public good—is a big concern, especially when it comes to big banks. Today’s WatchBlog explores how it happens and what regulators can do to protect themselves.

Listen to our podcast and read on for more.

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Regulatory capture 101

Unlike outright bribery, regulatory capture is generally considered to be more subtle. For example, some factors that can increase the risk of regulatory capture include:

  • A “revolving door”—frequent movement of staff between regulators and banks that allows regulators to form social or career connections within the industry.
  • “Cultural capture”—when regulators come to share the views and perspectives of industry, usually through shared education or experience.
  • Regulator funding structure—when regulators feel pressure to do things that will attract and retain banks (and therefore, funding from those banks).

How is this playing out in the real world?

We looked at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), which supervises the nation’s largest banks.

OCC has policies that help reduce the risk of capture and undue influence, including:

  • Formally declaring regulatory capture as an agencywide risk
  • Rotating large bank lead examiners to a different bank every 5 years
  • Having different staff review examination findings before issuing final conclusions to the bank
  • Reviewing financial disclosures and recusing individuals with conflicts of interest

Photo of the Seal of the Comptroller of the Currency

What can be done better?

Many of OCC’s policies match up with our framework of policy objectives that help reduce the risk of regulatory capture. However, we’ve identified several ways for OCC to strengthen existing controls. For instance, OCC examiners and management aren’t currently required to record key discussions with bankers. These conversations could influence the decision to take, or not take, supervisory actions against the bank. OCC also has a policy to delete drafts of supervisory letters to the bank. These drafts could show if different perspectives and opposing views were considered before issuing the final examination.

Requiring that these conversations are recorded and these drafts are kept could help OCC ensure that its staff aren’t inappropriately influenced by the big banks. In this vein, we made a total of 9 recommendations to OCC in areas such as supervision, ethics, and enterprise risk management.


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The Legacy of the Recovery Act

Photo of the New York Stock ExchangeTen years ago this month, Congress responded to the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression by passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act).

This economic stimulus package, estimated to cost more than $800 billion, intended to promote economic recovery by:

  • Preserving and creating jobs
  • Assisting those most impacted by the recession
  • Providing investments for increasing economic efficiency by spurring advances in science and health technology
  • Investing in transportation, environmental protection, and other infrastructure; and
  • Stabilizing state and local government budgets to avoid reductions in services and state and local tax increases

So, ten years on, what do we know about the effects of the Recovery Act? Today’s WatchBlog explores GAO’s work related to the scope of the Recovery Act and longer-term effects on the transparency of federal spending.

Spending and accountability

Starting in 2009, Recovery Act funds were distributed to federal agencies, states, localities, for-profit corporations and nonprofit organizations, as well as to individuals through grants, contracts, loans, tax benefits, and other assistance. Many Recovery Act projects focused on immediately jumpstarting the economy. Others, such as those focused on technology, infrastructure, and the environment, were expected to contribute to economic growth for many years.

Grants played a key role in the Recovery Act—states and localities received about $219 billion through federal grant programs for health care, transportation, energy, housing, and education. These grants came with aggressive timelines for spending the money quickly to create and retain jobs and stabilize state and local budgets.

Funding recipients were also required to publicly report on how they used Recovery Act funds to ensure transparency and accountability.

Figure Showing Overview of Recovery Act Spending by Program and Category, as of October 31, 2013

Following the money

Starting in 2009, we have conducted in-depth reviews of Recovery Act programs in 16 states, the District of Columbia, and selected localities—which encompassed about two-thirds of Recovery Act funds and 65 percent of the U.S. population.

Our work reviewed numerous programs in areas such as Highway Infrastructure and Public Transportation, Health Care, Energy, Public Housing, and Education.

Figure Showing Examples of Housing Projects Funded with Competitive Grants

We identified challenges and successes that federal, state, and local governments had in meeting the Recovery Act’s accountability and transparency requirements. For example, while the act required the creation of the Recovery.gov website, which demonstrated several leading practices for effective government websites, some agencies struggled with meeting the act’s oversight requirements due to lack of funding for oversight at the state and local levels, staffing shortages, and the short timelines for spending the funding.

A lasting legacy

The Recovery Act also paved the way for legislation that changed the standards for the transparency of government spending. Congress passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (the DATA Act), partly due to lessons learned from the Recovery Act.

The DATA Act requires federal agencies to prepare and submit standardized, accurate information about the trillions of dollars they spend each year.

We’ve reported on a number of issues related to the DATA Act, including a lack of accuracy and consistency in how agencies report their data, and we continue to monitor its implementation.

To learn more, visit our website.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Michelle Sager at sagerm@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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