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Not with a bang but with a high-pitched whimper. The slow death of the federal helium program

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On Oct. 1, 2013 the federal government became the victim of a gridlocked Congress and began to shut down. Hundreds of thousands of workers were furloughed without notice while many more kept working – unsure of when they would be paid.

Just one day later the 50 or so employees at the Bureau of Land Management’s Cliffside Gas Field – the last remaining federal helium plant – breathed a sigh of relief. The facility had only been allowed to operate until Oct. 7, but Congress had managed to finalize legislation that would keep the facility open for more than six years.

The Bureau of Land Management's remaining helium facility.

The Bureau of Land Management’s remaining helium facility.

President Obama signed the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 into law on Oct. 2. The shutdown wouldn’t be over until Oct. 16, nearly two weeks later. The helium program continued.

The Cliffside facility is one of the last remnants of the Federal Helium Program, which purchased helium-rich natural gas from private companies and stored them in the porous rock about 12 miles northwest of Amarillo, Texas and processed it through nearly half-a-dozen facilities.

The slow decline of the program belied its importance to national defense and scientific research. The government first began storing helium there in 1925 when airships were all the rage. But helium’s ability to super cool materials made it perfect for high-tech research and machinery (think MRI machines) and helped in critical missions within NASA and other agencies.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the Universe (right after hydrogen) but it is incredibly hard to pull the gas from the air. The most common way to obtain helium is as a byproduct from natural gas drilling.

By 1960 the government had purchased about 34 billion cubic feet of helium rich natural gas from drillers and had stored it in what helium experts called “the dome” next to the Cliffside facility and had built about 420 miles of underground pipeline stretching from Texas to Kansas. Along the way were private helium refiners that use the Cliffside reserves to further purify the gas and then sell it.

In 1996 Congress passed a bill that would gradually phase out the reserve. That process was sped up by the Helium Privitzation Act of 1996 which set aggressive targets for the selling off of stored helium.

But the legislation passed on Oct. 2 did not reinvigorate a federal program in decline or breath into it new life. It merely stamped an official date on its death certificate.

There are now only about 10 billion cubic feet of helium left in Cliffside’s reserves, and the Bureau of Land Management projects it will sell but 3 billion by the time its new authorization expires on Sept. 30, 2021 and the privatization of helium storage will be complete.

By then the BLM will have made arrangements to sell all of the equipment, the facility and even the underground pipeline to a private company or companies, according to Robert Jolley, the Amarillo field office manager for BLM. He said the facility supplies about 32 percent of the world’s helium supply and around 42 percent of helium within the United States. But that won’t last much longer.

“Our supplies are dwindling and we are on the last few years of our capability, so those percentages are dropping,” he said.

But Jolley is grateful the facility has been given time to close, instead of being shut down immediately last year. The work would have stopped in its tracks and he is not sure what would have happened afterwards.

“We were sweating being laid off,” he said.

Once the equipment is under contract and the facility and its pipeline are handed over to a private company, what happens then? Jolly said the selling process will begin sometime in 2019 but will hopefully include some provisions that it will remain in BLM hands up until the last day of authorization.

“We will try to operate up until the very end if possible,” he said.

How many people get arrested at Burning Man? The answer will surprise you.

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A woman dances with fire during the final day of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada early 03 September 2000. The festival is a spontaneous encounter of artists, performers and spectators, where the audience is expected to interact and collaborate during the week long event.  AFP PHOTO (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) Hector MATA

A woman dances with fire during the final day of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada early 03 September 2000. The festival is a spontaneous encounter of artists, performers and spectators, where the audience is expected to interact and collaborate during the week long event. AFP PHOTO (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) Hector MATA

Every year at the end of August nearly 70,000 people descend on Black Rock Desert in Pershing County, Nevada to take part in the celebration of radical self expression known as Burning Man.

And for many people it’s synonymous with drug use and burning a giant wooden man in the middle of the desert. But according to the Bureau of Land Management — which has jurisdiction over government land and the Burning Man festival grounds in particular — the number of people cited or arrested is quite low for its size and duration.

In 2013 only 6 people out of 69,613 were arrested and 433 more were cited by law enforcement, according to statistics from BLM provided to the Government Attic. (Note: Government attic is a great resource for FOIAs and government info alike.) That covers the five days leading up to Burning Man, the event itself and five days afterward.

The size of the gathering would make it the 5th largest city in Nevada and in comparison crime at Burning is pretty low, according to Gene Seidlitz, manager for the Winnemucca district of the BLM.

Year Burning Man Pop. BLM officers Drug citations Total citations Arrests
2010 51,515 51 158 293 9
2011 53,735 51 218 376 8
2012 52,385 70 253 365 14
2013 69,613 70 309 433 6

He said while in its early days there were deaths and more arrests the event has evolved into a well-organized festival complete with proper permits and safety guidelines — especially for the fire events.

“Although there are arrests and injuries and in the past deaths I think this is a very safe event and managed well with good oversight by the BLM,” Seidlitz said.

The key to keeping the event organized and safe is the extensive communication between event organizers and the BLM, according to Eric Boik, state chief ranger for the BLM for Utah, which oversees the law enforcement activities of the event.

“It’s because we all get to the table and communicate frequently and the planning for this starts for 2014 in December so we are already working hot and heavy,” Boik said.

He added the event encourages self-reliance and all the festival participants clean up everything they bring with them as part of a “leave no trace” culture.

“Everything is cleaned up as if the event never occurred,” he said.

Burning Man continues to grow — from a few hundred people 30 years ago to 51,515 in 2010 and up to 69,613 in 2013. The 2014 festival has a permit for 70,000 people and that is probably the maximum the event can host, according to the BLM.

A man dances near a fire at Black Rock City's Burning Man festival in Nevada 05 September 1999. Founded in 1986 by a group of fine artists, filmmakers and photographers, the annual event encourages a collaborative response from its audience and a collaboration between artists. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Hector MATA

A man dances near a fire at Black Rock City’s Burning Man festival in Nevada 05 September 1999. Founded in 1986 by a group of fine artists, filmmakers and photographers, the annual event encourages a collaborative response from its audience and a collaboration between artists. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Hector MATA

The agency worked on an environmental impact statement that put the maximum number of festival-goers — no including law enforcement or festival organizers — at 70,000, according to Seidlitz.

As for the wooden man that is burned every year?

“It’s quite a site,” Seidlitz said.

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Many feds get shutdown-related back pay ahead of schedule

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Thousands of federal workers got a welcome arrival in their bank accounts today: An ahead-of-schedule deposit for back pay owed from the partial government shutdown.

While the Obama administration had said that the money would show up in employees’ next paychecks after the shutdown ended last week, the Interior’s Department’s Business Center scheduled an “off-cycle” payment today for most Interior employees, along with many of those at NASA, the National Science Foundation and 39 other agencies who also get their paychecks through the center, spokesman Mike Fernandez said in an email.

The payments came one week ahead of the next normal biweekly pay date, Oct. 29, Fernandez said, and represented an effort “to provide retroactive pay as quickly as possible.” The center, which last month suffered a processing glitch that delayed some paychecks, handles payroll for about 240,000 employees.

Glitch means no paychecks today for thousands of feds

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For 40,000 federal employees, this has not been a happy Friday.

The reason: They didn’t get paid.

Because of problems at the Interior Business Center (IBC), which handles payroll processing for numerous agencies outside of the Interior Department, paychecks that were supposed to be direct-deposited today didn’t go through, spokesman Michael Fernandez said in a statement later posted on the center’s website. Paychecks will now be deposited Tuesday, he said. The affected employees work in 23 of the 42 agencies served by the business center. They represent about 17 percent of the 240,000 workers paid through the IBC, according to the statement. Affected agencies include the Securities and Exchange Commission, NASA, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the National Labor Relations Board.

According to Fernandez, the problem resulted when the payroll file sent from the business center to Treasury contained the official pay date of Sept. 17 for the electronic funds transfer, not the expected date of Sept. 13. “Efforts to process a new payment file were unsuccessful,” he said.

The center is working on a plan to prevent this from happening again, Fernandez said. Although most of its customers are not affected, he added, center officials know that this is a “serious matter” and sincerely regret “any inconveniences the error may have caused.”

Joe Ward, the center’s director, referred questions to Fernandez’s office. The snafu highlights the fact that to ‘facilitate processing of payroll in a timely manner,” the center in at least some cases routine deposits payroll money early to banks. As some commenters have noted, the employees are still ostensibly being paid on time, but that may not mean much if–for bill-paying purposes–you assumed that the money would be in your account by Friday. As they say in politics, it’s all about expectations.

The Interior Business Center has begun contacting about 1,800 financial institutions to let them know about the mistake and asking them to work with customers, according to Fernandez’s statement. “Some banks have already agreed to recognize the payments” as if they had been actually made on Friday, the statement says.

 

 

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Association of Government Accountants honors agency reporting

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Twenty agencies big and small were recently noted for top-notch financial and performance reporting by the Association of Government Accountants.

The “Certificate of Excellence in Accountability Reporting” (CEAR)  singles out “high-quality Performance and Accountability Reports (PARs) and Annual Financial Reports (AFRs) that effectively illustrate and assess financial and program performance, accomplishments and challenges, cost and accountability,” the accountants association said in a news release. The association also spotlights the teams of dedicated federal professionals who (often unsung) put the reports together.

“Given the fiscal status of the United States government and the public’s perceptions about government fiscal accountability and transparency, the achievement of this year’s CEAR recipients is even more significant,” AGA Executive Director Relmond Van Daniker said in the release. The agencies being honored “truly represent a select group within the government financial management community.”

Here’s a rundown of the winners:

Architect of the Capitol
Federal Aviation Administration
Federal Housing Finance Agency
Federal Trade Commission
NASA
Office of Financial Stability (Treasury Department)
Peace Corps
Commodity Futures Trading Commission
Education Department
Housing and Urban Development Department
Interior Department
Labor Department
State Department
Treasury Department
Government Accountability Office
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Patent and Trademark Office
Securities and Exchange Commission
Small Business Administration
Social Security Administration

Also honored at the May 22 National Press Club ceremony were 10 agencies that showed “specific points of excellence” within their fiscal year 2012 PARs. Known as ‘Best in Class’ awards, the recipients included:

Health and Human Services Department: Best Summary of Management and Performance Challenges by the Inspector General
Labor Department: Most Complete Schedule of Spending
Peace Corps: Most Comprehensive and Candid Presentation of Forward-Looking Information
FTC: Best Agency Head Message
HUD: Best Presentation of a Financial Management Systems Framework
Interior: Best High-Level Discussion of Performance
Capitol Architect: Best Analysis of an Agency’s Financial Statements
FAA: Most Representative of Editorial Excellence
Department of Homeland Security: Best Improper Payment and Recovery Act Reporting
Central Intelligence Agency: Best Introduction

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Hoyer: John Berry in the running for Interior

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John Berry (file photo/Getty Images)

Since Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Jan. 16 that he plans to step down at the end of March, federal government watchers have speculated that Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry may be in the running to replace him. When I asked Berry that day about the job, he wouldn’t even say whether he had talked to President Obama. “No comment,” Berry said. “At this point, I stand ready to serve the President in any capacity he desires.”

But his old friend and former boss, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, is far less reticent about Berry’s possible promotion.

“Yes, I do know that [Obama] is looking at him,” Hoyer told me at a lunch briefing in Bowie, Md. Hoyer continued:

I’ve talked to the Obama administration. I’ve talked to [Obama adviser] Peter Rouse, who’s helping coordinate that. They really like John Berry. They think John Berry has done an outstanding job as director of the Office of Personnel Management.

Hoyer lauded Berry’s experience as Interior’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget during the Clinton administration. “He, in effect, ran the department,” Hoyer said. “Bruce Babbitt, who was secretary at the time, has told me that he did an absolutely extraordinary job. So I think John Berry would be a wonderful secretary of Interior.”

Hoyer said he doesn’t know if the White House ultimately will select Berry, and notes that Interior secretaries have traditionally come from Western states. Berry is from Maryland. But Hoyer thinks the White House will make a decision soon, and said running Interior would be Berry’s dream job.

What he wants is Interior. He loves conservation issues, he loves preservation, he loves the outdoors. He’s wonderful, wonderful, one of the most positive human beings I’ve ever met in my life.

OPM declined to comment, and referred me to Berry’s previous statement.

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John Berry: ‘No comment’ on Interior secretary post

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John Berry (file photo/Getty Images)

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s decision to step down at the end of March opens up one more Cabinet position in the second Obama administration — and may present an opportunity for Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry.

While Berry is most known these days for his focus on federal hiring, pensions and other personnel matters, nature issues are especially close to his heart. He was director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park before Obama tapped him to run OPM, and prior to that, served as executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. He also served as Interior’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget during the Clinton administration.

The Washington Post’s Lisa Rein reported in a profile of Berry last fall that his friends say he is seeking the job. If selected and confirmed, Berry would be the first openly gay man to serve in a presidential Cabinet.

But when I asked Berry this morning if he had talked to Obama about running Interior, he was tight-lipped:

No comment. At this point, I stand ready to serve the President in any capacity he desires.

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Interior awards $35 million contract for Google cloud email

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The Interior Department expects to migrate 92,000 employees to a single cloud-based email system by December, according to a senior agency official.

Interior awarded a $35 million contract for cloud email and collaboration tools to Ohio-based Onix Networking Corp, according to an announcement on fbo.gov. The Google Apps for Government solution will also provide employees with instant messaging, desktop video conferencing, web-based collaboration systems and email on their mobile devices.

“That is one of our first big enterprise services that we hope we can ramp up quickly,” Andrew Jackson, deputy assistant secretary for technology, information and business services, said in an interview. “There will be a dedicated group that is launching and migrating and implementing the enterprise services.”

The award comes more than a year after a contentious battle between Google and Microsoft for Interior’s business.

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Watchdog group: Four IG offices now leaderless for years

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Hard to believe, but the State Department’s Office of Inspector General has been without a permanent head for more than four years.

That fact, highlighted this week by the Project on Government Oversight, puts the office in an unlucky class of four IG agencies that have had vacancies at the top for at least 1,000 days.

The others are the Interior and Labor departments and the Corporation for National and Community Service. While the Obama administration last fall nominated attorney Deborah Jeffrey for the inspector general’s job at the national service corporation, the Senate has yet to confirm her.

But the White House has named no one for the top positions at the other three offices. Although there are undoubtedly plenty of competent career folks to carry on in the meantime, ‘”a permanent IG has the ability to set a long-term strategic plan, . . . including setting investigative and audit priorities,” POGO said on its web site, adding that the administration has “no good excuse” for failing to nominate someone for a post that has been vacant for years.

The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment today.

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Three awesome government jobs you have probably never heard of

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#3 Job Title: Criminal Investigator

Agency: National Archives and Records Administration

The National Archives contains billions of documents and items that make up our nations cultural and political heritage. Presidential letters, military documents and even secret stuff regular folk like us cannot see (except perhaps Nicholas Cage). And sometimes people take documents from those archives and try to sell them.

The investigators comb the Internet, follow up on tips and travel to places such as Gettysburg, Pa., to look for documents, gather tips and educate traders at antique shows. Civil War documents are a ripe area for people trying to profit from government records, as there is high interest in items from that war.

Every so often, a news story about the team’s efforts bubbles to the surface, most recently when IG officers teamed with the U.S. Marshals Service and the Montgomery County, Md., police department in a raid on a former Archives employee’s home, seizing boxes of documents.

That’s right. Taking back those documents. So if you have ever watched “National Treasure” and thought to yourself, “I could definitely do a better job tracking down our nation’s documents, then this might be the career for you.

#2 Job Title:Bartender

Department:Department of the Army

So you have probably already heard of this job. But not for the Army, perhaps. According to the job title, the bartender “Operates a small full-service bar, mixing and serving the full range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.”

Sounds about right.

#1. Job Title:Biological Science Tech (Bison)

Agency:National Park Service

So there is nothing about this job I do not like. You travel across Yellowstone National Park (by ski, snowshoe or snowmobile) and use radio telemetry to locate buffalo/bison in rough terrain. You take notes about their locations and take biological samples for later study. You work in field laboratories and will assist in studying the vital statistics of individual bison.

And you will also have to watch out for grizzly bears. Seriously. Bears. (Here’s a full quote)

WORK ENVIRONMENT: This work is performed primarily outdoors, in cold conditions with ice and snow, with bison, elk, wolves, and coyotes very likely to be encountered, with a possibility of grizzly or black bears.

I can only imagine the job looks something like this…