Clean Air:

GAO's Stephenson elaborates on recent reviews of 'Clear Skies,' mercury, climate

In recent months, the Government Accountability Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- has released reports scrutinizing everything from federal spending on climate change research to the White House's "Clear Skies" proposal. During today's OnPoint, John Stephenson, director of natural resources and environment at the Government Accountability Office, discusses some of GAO's reports, including studies on mercury regulations and Mexican power plants. Plus, he explains how GAO stays neutral during heated political debates, and looks at some of the agency's major accomplishments.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is John Stephenson. He's a director in the Natural Resources and Environment Division at the Government Accountability Office. John thanks a lot for being here today.

John Stephenson: Thanks, my pleasure.

Brian Stempeck: Talking about some of the recent reports that GAO has worked on, most recently there was a climate change report taking a look at the overall budget for climate change research and seeing if the kind of claims the White House is making live up to the reality. Give us a sense on what you found in that report.

John Stephenson: Well, as you know the climate change spending in the federal government spans several agencies and there's a lot of different programs involved in it. And we were asked to, there is a congressional requirement that they submit an annual report on climate spending and [the Office of Management and Budget] puts that report together. And we were asked to look at the trends in spending beginning in 1993 and ending in 2003, so for a decade basically. And we found, essentially, that the spending, while it is going up, is very difficult to tell for what because the parameters of the program changed. What's included and not included in the program has changed, etc., so most of our recommendations out of that report were to suggest items of clarity to OMB to make the report more useful to the Congress.

Brian Stempeck: Has OMB and the White House, had they been responsive to that? I know Senator Kerry and Senator McCain have followed up in saying we want to see more evidence from OMB and more clarity as GAO recommended. To your knowledge have they followed up on those recommendations?

John Stephenson: Yes, we have a follow up process and they also respond when we make the recommendations at the end of the process. They agreed with the recommendations and agreed to try to implement those recommendations to make the reports more clear in the future and more useful to Congress.

Brian Stempeck: Now GAO has also been very active on a lot of Clean Air Act issues as EPA talks about different changes, as Congress looks at Clear Skies legislation. And one of the things you looked at was some of the economic modeling the EPA did when it comes to mercury regulations.

John Stephenson: Right.

Brian Stempeck: What did you find there?

John Stephenson: Well the issues on mercury, it is a [maximum achievable control technology] standard as you know, so the issue is how mature is the technology for mercury? And the administration wanted to blend the mercury rule with the CAIR rule and get residual benefits through the CAIR rule. So it became kind of confusing whether the cost benefit analysis or the economic analysis was for the CAIR rule or for the mercury rule since they kind of blended the two. So what we wanted to see was a little additional economic analysis to look at each individual rule, to see if they could make some better decisions than they were.

Brian Stempeck: Now EPA basically has stood by its work --

John Stephenson: Yes.

Brian Stempeck: -- even after the reports and the criticism that has come out. What's your reaction to that when agencies take some suggestions that you've made and says well we stand by what we've done?

John Stephenson: Well we do have a formal follow-up process, and we continue to advise the Congress, at least every year if not sooner, on the status of those recommendations. So it's easy for an agency to agree with them and say, yeah, we'll implement them, but then we keep checking year in and year out to see if they do. And we advise the Congress as to their progress towards meeting those recommendations. That's a fairly new report so it's too soon to tell how much they're going to implement that recommendation.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think, I mean is there a trend apparent to you? I mean there's been similar reports from the inspector general and the Congressional Resource Service looking at some of the EPA's modeling when it comes to Clear Skies. Talking about how their Clear Skies bill compares to other legislation in Congress. And again EPA stands by what it's doing. Is that seen as a trend to you, that you have these outside agencies taking a look at what EPA is doing and all finding some problems basically with their work?

John Stephenson: Well, all the economic analyses are available to the public. And everybody who wants to can pick up that analysis and redo it, etc. And it's a difficult process. You're trying to project benefits decades out in the future and what those are worth, what a human life is worth. So I think that's healthy for EPA to do that very much in the sunlight. We just always push for more clarity and more specificity in the economic analysis, because that after all is the basis for creating the rule, how effective the rule's going to be, whether the rule is even needed in the first place.

Brian Stempeck: Broadly speaking some of the other issues that have come up with EPA is their changes to New Source Review, NSR law. Is this something that GAO is going to be looking at in the future?

John Stephenson: If asked. All of GAO's work is requested by congressional committees. And we give equal ranking to chairmen and ranking members of committees. We like to do bipartisan requests. We're a fact-based agency. We deal in the facts. We don't deal in politics, so we very much like them bipartisan. But I expect that because New Source Review has so much impact and affects so many that, yes, we will be asked to do it in the future.

Brian Stempeck: How does GAO stay nonpartisan on these issues? I mean these are very complicated, very complex debates going on, a lot of ammunition for both sides here. You're talking about Clear Skies, Clean Air Act changes, climate change, very intense debate going on these issues. How does GAO remain kind of an objective voice in that?

John Stephenson: We just try to just stick to the facts and let the facts drive our outcome. Often we'll write a report that doesn't comport with the requester's view, but we have a policy that we will issue the report if we spent so many staff days anyway. So that's a way to ensure independence. We also check on each job to make sure individuals on that project don't have a conflict of interest or anything else. So as I said, we try to encourage bipartisan request letters. We don't always get it though.

Brian Stempeck: What do you see as the major accomplishments of your office so far in terms of coming out with a report and then seeing concrete changes from an agency?

John Stephenson: I think this is true across GAO because we don't have the power to implement anything. We don't write legislation. We advise the Congress on legislation, but we only make recommendations. It's up to the Congress to act and the agencies. And I think through our annual reporting process and the things that GAO does across the board to follow up on reports, I think we have a very good track record. We implement, probably over 65 percent of our recommendations are implemented. And I think it's very effective. We're nipping at the edges, but we're making small improvements in individual programs as we go. And at the end of the day I felt pretty good about my job.

Brian Stempeck: Can you give me a recent example of something that's happened in the past few years where you've come out with a report on EPA, or a different agency, and you've seen the agency take immediate steps based on your recommendations?

John Stephenson: They never take immediate steps, but for example on NSR, I think they, we looked at the cost benefit analysis on that when it was a proposed rule. And we suggested some improvements that we would like to see for the cost benefit analysis in the final rule and many of those were taken. So it's small steps like that that we see that we're pretty proud of.

Brian Stempeck: What about, I guess kind of the opposite question, are there cases where GAO has kind of raised the red flag and you were ignored? I was looking back at the agency's history GAO did studies back on the Watergate scandal in the '70s. In the '80s you took a look at some of the savings and loans procedures before that blew up into a scandal. Are there situations that you think have happened in the '90s or basically the past five or six years where you've done a report, you're looking at an existing trend, a problem and the agencies just aren't responding?

John Stephenson: Always. I mean the agencies never do as much as you'd like them to do, but I can't think of a really mega example like the ones you mentioned. Generally most of the agencies want to do the right thing. They have different points of views for accomplishing their objectives and we just try to point out ways to move them in the right direction.

Brian Stempeck: Just looking back over the past year what other reports would you point to? We talked about clean air. We talked about climate change. There are some other power plant issues you've been focusing on as well, including some plants in Mexico.

John Stephenson: Yes, you mentioned mercury and you mentioned NSR. We did do an interesting job to look at power plants. This is sort of the California phenomenon, well a little bit maybe a Canada/U.S. border as well. But the congressmen down there and the chairman of jurisdiction asked us to look at the situation in the Imperial County, California, which is the border region between San Diego, basically, and Mexico. Many power plants were being built over there purportedly to avoid U.S. emissions regulations, etc. for those power plants. But what we actually found was quite interesting. These are gas plants. They're very clean plants and they really contributed very little to the pollution in Imperial County. We found the big problem was unpaved roads adding to the PM, particulate matter, contamination in Imperial County. If they paved roads they would accomplish a lot more than worrying about the power plants in Mexico. But since it was a trend, there were four more on the books I think, and it looked like this was going to be a trend, we were asked to look at it. And the facts show that the power plants weren't actually the culprits for the clean air problems in Imperial County. It was the roads.

Brian Stempeck: Looking ahead to 2006, obviously you're waiting on requests from different lawmakers and committees, but what you expect to be some of the top issues GAO and your division is going to be looking at?

John Stephenson: I think climate change is always going to be on the forefront. We've got a couple of ongoing projects right now that are very big and complicated. One to look at if in fact federal land managers are doing anything to address the potential climate change problems in the future. We've got another ongoing request to look at the air toxics program, which as you know looks at some 180 toxic air pollutants that were named in the original Clean Air Act. And what's our progress in controlling and determining what to do with those. And a whole host of other environmental issues. I do air issues, but I also look at clean water issues, hazardous waste issues, lots of interesting stuff.

Brian Stempeck: John we're out of time. Thanks a lot for coming on the show. We appreciate the work you're doing.

John Stephenson: Thanks very much, my pleasure.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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