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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.

Hilton Worldwide wants Old Post Office Building for new hotel, world-class spa

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Federal employees currently working at the Old Post Office building in Washington, D.C., may find themselves relocated in favor of a Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

In response to a March 24 General Services Administration  request for proposals, Hilton Worldwide, which owns the Waldorf chain, has come up with its own plan for the 315,000 square foot historic structure.

From a press release:

The proposal, tendered in response to the General Services Administration’s solicitation for redevelopment of the iconic 112-year-old Old Post Office Building, would create a 245-room Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and feature destination retailers from New York and Paris, as well as a world-class social and meeting space and a premier fitness facility.

To complement the hotel’s fusion of a historic setting with world renowned retail brands, the proposal also includes a world-class spa, a 28,000 square foot premium fitness center, four signature restaurants and 17,000 sq. ft. of function and ballroom space.

“Our project for a revitalized Old Post Office Building will encourage the flow of tourism, further economic vitality and bring new jobs to Washington, D.C., while preserving this historic building for future generations,” said John Vanderslice, Global Head Luxury and Lifestyle Brands, Hilton Worldwide.

The effort to redevelop federal property would force about 370 employees of the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and several presidential commissions out of their current offices. GSA expects a new lease would be executed in June 2013. It has not decided on a new location for the federal employees working there.

The National Park Service conducts tours of the historic clock tower, which is not included in the proposal.

So what about those White House solar panels?

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Last year Energy Secretary Stephen Chu announced with much fanfare at a green government symposium that the White House will have solar panels on it – by the end of spring no less.

Well, that day has come and gone. But instead of solar panels, there is just a June 20 statement on the Energy Department’s blog that says the following before highlighting areas of success:

The Energy Department remains on the path to complete the White House solar demonstration project, in keeping with our commitment, and we look forward to sharing more information — including additional details on the timing of this project — after the competitive procurement process is completed.

When I asked the Energy Department why the project was not completed on time, I only got the return answer to just see that statement. Inquiries to the White House were directed back to the Energy Department, since they were in charge of procurement.

But why the project was delayed or for what reasons is not clear. The only thing that we know is that there are no solar panels on the White House.

Update: WUSA’s report on federal building lights misses the mark

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So some of you readers might have seen a WUSA report in the D.C. area that took aim at federal workers leaving the lights on. Well, Andrea McCarren had noted that in many federal office buildings, the lights were being left on at night, which costs taxpayer dollars.

So she filed a report on how much each agency pays in energy costs for each month and came away with some striking figures.

The video package seems to have everything: Taxpayer dollars being wasted, federal employees behaving badly and federal agencies paying through the nose for electricity because they leave their lights on.

In fact, at the 1:35 minute of the video the camera zooms in on the Labor Department’s monthly bill and shows – weird techno soundtrack to highlight the number – a bill of $1,042,098.92 for July 2010.

Outrageous! Scandalous. The reporter decides to ask people how much a utility bill should be for these buildings. She then springs the million dollar number on them after they answer to record their shock.

There is only one problem. That number is not true.

A clue that there might be more to this story is that if you freeze the video at 1:35, you can see their totals for the other months. It looks like April’s number is around $40,000. A huge change month to month.

So what is the deal?

That number was the amount the Transportation Department was billed but not its utility cost for that month. Because of previous bills that undercharged them they had to make it up in those months. The amount they paid per month in electricity is actually as follows.

April-$344,656.61

May-$344,667.25

June-$364,781.19

July-$390,466.43

August-$365,105.56

Sept.$374,519.35

How did I get these numbers? I did my own request and found out about the error.

Phillip Puckett, the Department of Labor’s Director in the Office of Administrative Services states that:

The $1 million electric bill highlighted in the news report does not reflect a single month’s bill, but a billing correction where the General Services Administration vendor played catch up with under billing for previous months.  The actual monthly electric bill for July was $390,466.43, not the $1,042,098.98 as reported.

The Department of Labor, Frances Perkins Building’s total electric bill for FY2010 was $4,244,040.13.

The reason the bills climbed from April to July was the bill corrections.  The General Service Administration’s electric contract is broken down into generation and transmission fees.  The vendor providing the electricity did not properly process and correctly bill DOL in the initial months of FY2010.  The differences in the April to July bills reflect billing corrections.

Also, total building size should be taken into consideration for the electric bills. The Department of Labor, Frances Perkins Building’s is just under 2 million gross square feet in size.

I am not arguing that the lights being on don’t waste taxpayer money, they probably do. But lets note that on average commercial buildings use only 25 percent of their energy on electricity for lights. The rest is heating, cooling, appliances and other related costs.

Also, the Frances Perkins building spends about $2.10 per square foot on energy costs, which is below the commercial sector average for office space of about $2.28, according to the Energy Department.

What gridlock? Postal dedications on the rise

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While Congress might be having trouble scheduling, debating and passing numerous pieces of legislation, it seems one of the few bills that has not suffered are the resolutions to rename postal facilities.

These resolutions have been on the rise for more than 13 years. In the 105th Congress spanning 1997 to 1998, there were 9 resolutions. In the 108th Congress from 2003 to 2004 there were 117.

In the years 2007 to 2008 there were 169. There have been 111 in the current Congress.


1997-1998

9
1999-2000 46
2001-2002 92
2003-2004 117
2005-2006 135
2007-2008 169
2009-2010

111*

*So far this Congress.

GSA solicits ideas for green design

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Do you dislike where you work? Do you think you can do better?

If you are a professional or amateur within the field of green and sustainable design, you are in luck. The General Services Administration is once again soliciting ideas for its Design and Construction Awards Program.

In a letter to possible participants, Martha Johnson, GSA administrator, said that “In their design and construction, the products of GSA’s Design Excellence Program have represented our nation’s core values of transparency, democracy, and individualism, and they have realized those principles functionally and efficiently.”

The contest is open to:

Contract design professionals, contractors, construction managers, artists, firms, or organizations that have completed or are working on projects for GSA or under GSA authority.

GSA employees or former employees who have or had professional responsibility for a GSA-authorized project.

Entries in the categories of architecture, art, conservation, construction, communication design, interior design, landscaping preservation, and urban design and planning, will be accepted until Sept. 22.

Sound off on carbon footprint accounting

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My cover story in this week’s Federal Times details the federal government’s new goal to cut indirect greenhouse gas emissions by 13 percent during the next decade. The bulk of the story explains the impact on federal workers — more telecommuting, fewer business trips out of state, increased recycling and energy conservation efforts.

But as I mention in the article, this is just part of a much larger undertaking to measure and shrink the government’s entire carbon footprint, including the energy used in federal facilities and vehicles.

Under an October executive order from President Obama, all agencies must undertake their first-ever comprehensive accounting of greenhouse gas emissions and report their carbon footprints by Jan. 31.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality earlier this month issued a roadmap for agencies to follow in conducting this inventory. The roadmap is divided into two parts: an overall guidance document, and a more detailed technical support document.

CEQ will accept public comments on the two documents through Sept. 1.

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Thieves target Virginia government offices

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This is why you don’t let anyone follow you into the building without proper identification.

A group of thieves is targeting office buildings in northern Virginia, including sensitive federal offices, the Atlantic reported today. Read the rest of this entry »

Federal building evacuation a precautionary e(gg)xit

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The 31-story Peachtree Summit Federal Building in downtown Atlanta was evacuated yesterday after mailroom workers flagged a suspicious package that turned out to be a decorative egg.

Federal Protection Service authorities ordered the evacuation just before noon Tuesday after a routine X-ray spotted what appeared at first to be a grenade inside the package. The suspicious item later turned out to be a Fabergé-like egg.

About 1,900 federal employees from the IRS, Social Security Administration and other agencies work at the building, which also contains a daycare center.  Employees were allowed to return to the building about an hour and a half after the evacuation.

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GSA picks chief greening officer

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The General Services Administration has tapped an industry expert to serve in the newly created career position of chief greening officer.

Eleni Reed, director of sustainability strategies at property management firm Cushman and Wakefield, will oversee green building programs and strategies across GSA’s inventory of 9,600 owned and leased facilities, the agency announced Tuesday.

While at Cushman and Wakefield, Reed led the effort to enhance the environmental performance of the firm’s portfolio of U.S.-managed properties. She played a key role in develping a memorandum of understanding between the firm and the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at enhancing energy efficiency, cutting water use and waste, and reducing the carbon footprint of the firm’s U.S.-managed properties, GSA said.

Reed will report directly to Bob Peck, commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service. Peck said she will be instrumental in helping  GSA carry out the Obama administration’s green government mandates and GSA Administrator Martha Johnson’s own pledge to reduce GSA’s carbon footprint to zero.

Her unparalleled work in sustainability and green buildings will help drive GSA’s efforts to be a green proving ground and a market-maker for state-of-the art and emerging technologies.

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