Briefing With State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott W. Busby

Scott Busby, Deputy Assistant SecretaryBureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Via Teleconference

MR ICE: Yes, thank you. Good afternoon, everybody, and I want to thank you for joining our on-the-record briefing with State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby.

Just yesterday, the State Department announced the release of our guidance on implementing the UN Guiding Principles for Transactions Linked to Foreign Government End-Users for Products or Services with Surveillance Capabilities. This guidance is available on state.gov for any business to refer to and use. It is a first-of-its-kind tool intended to provide practical, usable, and accessible human rights guidance.

Today, we’re going to begin with opening remarks from Assistant Secretary Busby, and then we will turn to your questions. As a quick reminder, today’s opening remarks and the questions and answers are on the record, but we are going to embargo everything until the end of the call. This is embargoed until the end of the call.

With that, I will turn it over to you, Deputy Assistant Secretary Busby. Please, go ahead.

MR BUSBY: Thanks, JT, and thanks to all of you for joining us today. This guidance document which JT just described is the culmination of a nearly two-year-long process involving broad stakeholder engagement with experts from across civil society and industry. It is aimed at addressing a growing need. Surveillance has been an issue for years, but the number of products or services with surveillance capabilities is increasing exponentially.

There is a vast difference between the use of such applications to gather data that can be used to exert social, economic, or political control, and the use of such data to enhance the lives and security of people. Only by working in partnership with U.S. businesses can those of us on the side of promoting high standards and values safeguard against such misuse.

Too often, surveillance technologies and products are misused by foreign governments to stifle dissent, harass human rights defenders, intimidate minority communities, discourage whistleblowers, chill free expression, target political opponents, journalists, and lawyers, or interfere arbitrarily or unlawfully with privacy.

We released this guidance document in an effort to address these real concerns and help U.S. businesses that are equally concerned about their products or services being potentially misused to commit human rights violations and abuses. The guidance outlines a series of due diligence measures in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises that companies should take to mitigate the risk that products and services with surveillance capabilities will be misused by governments to violate or abuse human rights.

It familiarizes U.S. businesses with human rights terminology and offers them greater understanding of the human rights concerns the U.S. Government may have with certain transactions. It helps businesses conduct a human rights impact assessment on their relevant products or services and provides businesses with a series of considerations to weigh prior to engaging in transactions with foreign governments. The guidance document is intended to be particularly helpful for U.S. businesses that want to undertake a human rights review where the U.S. Government does not require an authorization for export.

To help U.S. businesses in implementing the guidance, the State Department has updated our annual Human Rights Report instructions for our embassies around the world to increase attention to surveillance concerns in next year’s reports. Reports with this information will be released in 2021. Our office also stands by ready to work with U.S. businesses seeking assistance in implementing the guidance. We also plan to share the document with other governments, encouraging them to adopt similar measures for their businesses.

Technological leadership from U.S. business has never been more important. We must continue to advance innovation that complements our approach to human rights, including the right to be free from arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy and freedom of expression, as well as respect for the rule of law. We look forward to working with the U.S. business community and implementing this guidance and ensuring that American companies continue to reflect the strongest of American values.

With that, I’m happy to take any questions you might have.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question, please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone, and you may remove yourself by repeating the 1, 0 command.

MR ICE: Okay, great. Thank you so much for that, DAS Busby. We really appreciate it. Let’s go ahead. We’re going to go out a little bit first today for our questions. Let’s go to Alex Aliyev at Turan News Agency.

Alex.

QUESTION: Yes, sir. Good afternoon and thank you so much for doing this. I just wanted to understand (inaudible). For many reasons, the U.S. and its allies do not subscribe to the vision of sovereign and controlled internet when it comes to selling surveillance technology to the likes of, like, Saudi Arabia or Azerbaijan or other countries with poor human rights records. Should we understand – is that – my understanding is that this is going to a new guideline. Is that the case? And if that’s the case, will you make a distinction between the U.S. companies and the U.S. Government-backed efforts? Because digital authoritarianism is spreading and the U.S. companies also need to stop helping it. Thank you so much.

MR BUSBY: These guidelines are based on universal human rights standards that apply to businesses that may be selling products to other governments as well as to U.S. Government action. Human rights obligations of course only apply to governments, but we encourage businesses to respect human rights. That is one of the mandates in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

MR ICE: Okay, very good. Let’s go to Pearl Matibe at Open Parliament.

QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon and thank you very much for your availability today. I really appreciate this. My question is: You did mention that this has taken three years to come about, so what took so long in the face of the – many countries are facing multiple crises, but this one is a serious one, so what took you so long to announce it now? And was there something that just recently happened for you to announce it today? I just want to understand, why three years? Maybe share what it took to bring this thing about. Thank you very much.

MR BUSBY: First of all, it was only two years in the making, not three, and the reason it took a long time was that we wanted to thoroughly consult all interested stakeholders, including businesses, nongovernmental organizations, the other interested agencies within the U.S. Government to make sure we had guidance that reflected the concerns and interests of all those stakeholders. So there were multiple meetings and then thorough vetting within the U.S. Government as a whole of this guidance.

MR ICE: Okay, thank you. We’re going to – again, let me just remind folks, if you have a question, please dial 1, 0 and that will put you into the question queue. And we’ve – we’re ready to take those questions.

I’ll tell you what, I see that – I believe Pearl has a follow-up question. Pearl, would you like to go ahead and ask your follow-up?

QUESTION: I do, and thank you very much for taking a follow-up question. So while I commend and applaud this effort, I just want to ask you how realistic and what outcome do you wish, do you hope – heads of government and countries that are trending so authoritarian in places – like, for instance, Zimbabwe right now is just in the throws actually. Yesterday they were having a cabinet meeting on amending their cybersecurity and data bill. So how realistic can we see positive outcomes out of this commendable action that you have taken? What do you hope to see? Thanks.

MR BUSBY: Well, first I should emphasize that this guidance is directed at businesses, but our hope is that businesses that follow this guidance along with the diplomacy that our government does along with other governments relative to countries that are restricting access to the internet, that are restricting freedom of expression – the hope is that together, those actions will cause those governments to rethink their restrictive policies.

MR ICE: Okay, very well. Once again, folks, you dial 1, 0 to get into the question queue. Let’s go out to Owen Churchill at the South China Morning Post.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. This is Owen Churchill. Thank you for taking my question. I was just curious whether you could speak a little bit about any particular cases or particular governments that you’re monitoring closely where you see this practice, the abuse of technology taking place. Are there any particular countries that have your concern at the moment? Thank you.

MR BUSBY: Thanks for the question. I mean, obviously China is one country that has taken a very restrictive approach to the internet and is using surveillance technology widely in violation of international human rights standards. But there are many other governments around the world that are doing the same: Iran obviously, Venezuela, several countries in Africa. So this is a global problem that we’re seeking to address with this guidance.

MR ICE: Okay, very well. Once again, dial 1, 0 if you do have a question. I see that we – Alex Aliyev there at the Turan has come back again with a follow-up. Go ahead, Alex.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thank you for the opportunity, and so sorry for taking too long for that – for this question. But some countries such as Azerbaijan and others are using third party sometimes to purchase U.S. surveillance technologies. I wonder how it will work in that scenario. Do you have any leverage to go after third parties when they are breaking the rules? Thank you so much.

MR BUSBY: Very good question, Alex. The guidance is directed at businesses engaged in transactions with other governments, but we recognize that there are often third parties who are assisting governments in obtaining this technology, and we would encourage businesses to evaluate, to assess the relationship of such third parties to governments that are engaging in restrictive practices.

MR ICE: Okay, thank you. We don’t have any other questions in the queue at this moment. I do invite anyone who does have one to go ahead and dial 1-0 and you can come in. We’ll just stand by for a moment and see if a question comes. Please hold.

Okay, let’s now go to Rosiland Jordan with Al Jazeera.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing the call. I guess I have a more basic question: Is this guiding principle being aimed at companies such as Huawei which have been suspected of gathering information for nefarious purposes by this government or that government? And how is this going to be used in tandem with U.S. Government sanctions programs? Thank you.

MR BUSBY: Very good question, Rosiland. I mean, obviously companies like Huawei do not consider human rights impacts when exporting surveillance tools around the world. This guidance is aimed at encouraging U.S. businesses – and other businesses, for that matter – to conduct their business in a very different way than the way that Huawei does. Huawei does not consider human rights impact and we believe that American businesses can and should do that. To the extent that Huawei might be a third party engaged in these sorts of transactions, obviously we have called attention to that in the past and we will continue to call attention to the ways in which Huawei might be complicit in human rights abuses.

MR ICE: Very good. Okay, again, we have an open question queue. If you have a question, please dial 1-0.

Okay, Rosiland, we’ll let you go with your follow-up.

QUESTION: Yes. So the follow-up is: Will the principles be used by the U.S. Government to work on any potential further sanctions under current practices?

MR BUSBY: To the extent that the U.S. imposes sanctions on foreign entities, foreign governments, or foreign government officials, that is generally based on human rights abuses, corruption, or other provisions provided for under U.S. law. So this guidance will not be the basis for sanctions, but that said, this guidance draws on the same human rights standards that are used to sanction overseas entities, individuals, or governments.

MR ICE: Okay, we’ll continue to hold for a moment. We do have, again, an open queue. If anyone has any questions, please dial 1-0.

Okay, last call for questions.

(No response.)

Okay, everyone. Once again, let me thank you for your participation today. I also would like to thank Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Busby for his participation today. We very much appreciate you coming in. The embargo is now lifted. Thank you.

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    What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified two priority recommendations for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Since then, SEC has implemented one of these recommendations, and the other remains open. The open priority recommendation relates to performance management for SEC employees. Specifically, it would help enhance the credibility of SEC's performance management system among its staff, including the ratings, recognition, or feedback that they receive as a result. SEC's continued attention to this issue could lead to significant improvements in government operations. We are not adding any additional priority recommendations this year.  Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/or executive branch decision making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015 GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact Michael Clements at (202) 512-8678 or clementsm@gao.gov.
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  • Data Center Optimization: Agencies Report Progress and Billions Saved, but OMB Needs to Improve Its Utilization Guidance
    In U.S GAO News
    The 24 agencies participating in the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) Data Center Optimization Initiative (DCOI) continue to report progress toward meeting OMB's goals for closing data centers and achieving the related cost savings. According to data submitted by the 24 agencies, almost all of them met or planned to meet their closure and cost savings goals for fiscal years 2019 and 2020. As of August 2020, the agencies reported that they expected to achieve 230 data center closures, resulting in $1.1 billion in savings, over the 2-year period. Agencies expected to realize a cumulative total of $6.24 billion in cost savings and avoidances from fiscal years 2012 through 2020. However, agencies have excluded approximately 4,500 data centers from their inventories since May 2019 due to a change in the definition of a data center. Specifically, in June 2019, OMB narrowed the definition of a data center to exclude certain facilities it had previously identified as having potential cybersecurity risks. GAO reported that each such facility provided a potential access point, and that unsecured access points could aid cyber attacks. Accordingly, GAO recommended that OMB require agencies to report those facilities previously reported as data centers so that visibility of the risks of these facilities was retained. However, OMB has not taken action to address the recommendation. Overall, GAO has made 125 recommendations since 2016 to help agencies meet their DCOI goals, but agencies have not implemented 53. The 24 agencies reported varied progress against OMB's data center optimization targets for fiscal year 2020 (see figure). Agency-Reported Progress towards Meeting Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Data Center Optimization Targets, as of August 2020 Notes: Virtualization measures the number of servers and mainframes serving as a virtual host. Advanced energy metering counts data centers with metering to measure energy efficiency. A metric is not applicable if an agency does not have any agency-owned data centers or if its remaining centers are exempted from optimization by OMB. In June 2019, OMB revised the server utilization metric to direct agencies to develop their own definitions of underutilization, and then count their underutilized servers. As a result, agencies adopted widely varying definitions and were no longer required to report actual utilization, a key measure of server efficiency. In December 2014, Congress enacted federal IT acquisition reform legislation known as FITARA, which included provisions related to ongoing federal data center consolidation efforts. OMB's federal Chief Information Officer launched DCOI to build on prior data center consolidation efforts and improve federal data centers' performance. FITARA included a provision for GAO to annually review agencies' data center inventories and strategies. This report addresses (1) agencies' progress on data center closures and the related savings that have been achieved, and agencies' plans for future closures and savings; (2) agencies' progress against OMB's data center optimization targets; and (3) the effectiveness of OMB's metric for server utilization and how the agencies are implementing it. To do so, GAO reviewed the 24 DCOI agencies' data center inventories as of August 2020, their reported cost savings documentation and data center optimization strategic plans, and OMB's revised utilization metric. GAO reiterates that agencies need to address the 53 recommendations previously made to them that have not yet been implemented. GAO is making one new recommendation to OMB to revise its server utilization metric to more consistently address server efficiency. OMB had no comments on the report and the recommendation directed to the agency. Of the 24 DCOI agencies, five agreed with the information in the report, six did not state whether they agreed or disagreed, and 13 had no comments. For more information, contact Carol C. Harris at (202) 512-4456 or harriscc@gao.gov.
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  • Housing: Preliminary Analysis of Homeownership Trends for Nine Cities
    In U.S GAO News
    Following a decade of decline, including after the 2007–2009 financial crisis, the national homeownership rate started to recover in 2016 (see figure). Homeownership Rate in the United States, 1990–2018 Note: Shaded areas indicate U.S. recessions. However, not all Americans have benefitted from the recovery, even in housing markets that appear to be thriving. GAO examined homeownership trends during 2010–2018 in nine core-based statistical areas (cities)—Chicago; Cleveland; Columbia, South Carolina; Denver; Houston; Pittsburgh; San Francisco; Seattle; and Washington, D.C. In summary, among the nine cities reviewed, GAO found that during 2010–2018: The homeownership rate declined or was flat in all cities. The homeownership rate significantly declined in Chicago, Cleveland, and Houston and remained statistically unchanged in the other cities. Average home prices grew in all cities, but at considerably different rates. For example, real house prices increased significantly in Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle but much less in Chicago, Cleveland, and Columbia. The homeowner vacancy rate dropped in all cities, indicating growing constraints on the housing supply. Most significantly, by 2018, the three cities with the largest house price increases—Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle—all had homeowner vacancy rates below 1 percent and the three lowest rental vacancy rates (below 5 percent), indicating more severe constraints on supply. Most cities became denser, and some also expanded outward. Cities such as Houston and Washington, D.C., both became denser (added more housing units in developed areas) and expanded outward (added housing units in previously undeveloped areas), while cities such as Seattle and Denver grew largely by adding more density to already high-density areas. Chicago, and Pittsburgh became less dense, as limited growth came largely through outward expansion. Homeowners and recent borrowers were increasingly higher-income. All nine cities saw growth in the estimated number and percentage of households reporting annual incomes of $150,000 or more (the highest income category reported by Census). Similarly, with the exception of Columbia, real median incomes of borrowers increased in the selected cities. Homeowners and recent borrowers were increasingly older and more diverse. Most cities saw growth in homeownership among households aged 60 and older, often with corresponding decreases among younger owners. Additionally, loan originations by minority borrowers increased in all cities. GAO's analysis of homeownership trends in these nine cities during 2010–2018 illustrates two main points: (1) Cities grew differently and accommodated growth to differing degrees, and (2) who owns and who can buy a home differs by location and type of buyer, sometimes substantially. Historically, owning a home has been one of the primary ways Americans built wealth and financial security. This is one reason why the availability and price of housing is consequential to both households and policymakers. GAO was asked to assess the state of the current domestic housing market and this report, one in a series, focuses on homeownership trends. To conduct this work, GAO used data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey and Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data (loan and application data filed by mortgage lenders), among other sources, to identify trends in nine selected cities during 2010–2018, the most current data available at the time of GAO's review. This report examines trends prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and does not account for the profound effect it likely will have on homeowners. GAO has ongoing work that will examine implementation of foreclosure and eviction protections authorized in recent legislation. GAO makes no recommendations in this report. For more information, contact Daniel Garcia-Diaz at (202) 512-8678 or garciadiazd@gao.gov.
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  • Small Business Administration: COVID-19 Loans Lack Controls and Are Susceptible to Fraud
    In U.S GAO News
    In April 2020, the Small Business Administration (SBA) moved quickly to implement the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides loans that are forgivable under certain circumstances to small businesses affected by COVID-19. Given the immediate need for these loans, SBA worked to streamline the program so that lenders could begin distributing these funds as soon as possible. For example, lenders were permitted to rely on borrowers' self-certifications for eligibility and use of loan proceeds. As a result, there may be significant risk that some fraudulent or inflated applications were approved. Since May 2020, the Department of Justice has publicly announced charges in more than 50 fraud-related cases associated with PPP funds. In April 2020, SBA announced it would review all loans of more than $2 million to confirm borrower eligibility, and SBA officials subsequently stated that they would review selected loans of less than $2 million to determine, for example, whether the borrower is entitled to loan forgiveness. However, SBA did not provide details on how it would conduct either of these reviews. As of September 2020, SBA reported it was working with the Department of the Treasury and contractors to finalize the plans for the reviews. Because SBA had limited time to implement safeguards up front for loan approval, GAO believes that planning and oversight by SBA to address risks in the PPP program is crucial moving forward. SBA's efforts to expedite processing of Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL)—such as the reliance on self-certification—may have contributed to increased fraud risk in that program as well. In July 2020, SBA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported indicators of widespread potential fraud—including thousands of fraud complaints—and found deficiencies with SBA's internal controls. In response, SBA maintained that its internal controls for EIDL were robust, including checks to identify duplicate applications and verify account information, and that it had provided banks with additional antifraud guidance. The Department of Justice, in conjunction with other federal agencies, also has taken actions to address potential fraud. Since May 2020, the department has announced fraud investigations related to the EIDL program and charges against recipients related to EIDL fraud. SBA has made or guaranteed more than 14.5 million loans and grants through PPP and EIDL, providing about $729 billion to help small businesses adversely affected by COVID-19. However, the speed with which SBA implemented the programs may have increased their susceptibility to fraud. This testimony discusses fraud risks associated with SBA's PPP and EIDL programs. It is based largely on GAO's reports in June 2020 (GAO-20-625) and September 2020 (GAO-20-701) that addressed the federal response, including by SBA, to the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. For those reports, GAO reviewed SBA documentation and interviewed officials from SBA, the Department of the Treasury, and associations that represent lenders and small businesses. GAO also met with officials from the SBA OIG and reviewed OIG reports. In its June 2020 report, GAO recommended that SBA develop and implement plans to identify and respond to risks in PPP to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud. SBA neither agreed nor disagreed, but GAO believes implementation of this recommendation is essential. For more information, contact William B. Shear at (202) 512-4325 or shearw@gao.gov.
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  • Natural Disasters: Economic Effects of Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma
    In U.S GAO News
    Between January 1980 and July 2020, the United States experienced 273 climate and weather disasters causing more than $1 billion in damages each, according to NOAA. The total cost of damages from these disasters exceeded $1.79 trillion, with hurricanes and tropical storms accounting for over 50 percent of these damages, according to NOAA. Across the regions affected by these hurricanes over the period from 2005 to 2015, CBO estimated that federal disaster assistance covered, on average, 62 percent of the damage costs. GAO has reported that the rising number of natural disasters and reliance on federal disaster assistance is a key source of federal fiscal exposure. GAO was asked to review the costs of natural disasters and their effects on communities. This report examines (1) estimates of the costs of damages caused by hurricanes and hurricanes' effects on overall economic activity and employment in the areas they affected, and (2) actions subsequently taken in those areas to improve resilience to future natural disasters. GAO conducted case studies of Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma, selected for two reasons. First, they were declared a major disaster by the President under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which establishes key programs through which the federal government provides disaster assistance, primarily through FEMA. Second, they had sizable effects on the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia during the period from 2004 through 2018. GAO analyzed federal agency and other data on costs, economic activity, employment, and recovery and mitigation projects in selected areas affected by these hurricanes. GAO also visited selected recovery and mitigation project sites; interviewed experts and federal, state, and local government officials; and reviewed federal, state, and local government reports and academic studies. Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma (selected hurricanes) caused costly damages and challenges for some populations in affected communities. In these communities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated the cost of damages to be approximately $170 billion for Katrina, $74 billion for Sandy, $131 billion for Harvey, and $52 billion for Irma. These estimates include the value of damages to residential, commercial, and government or municipal buildings; material assets within the buildings; business interruption; vehicles and boats; offshore energy platforms; public infrastructure; and agricultural assets. These hurricanes were also costly to the federal government. For example, in 2016, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that federal spending exceeded $110 billion in response to Katrina and $53 billion in response to Sandy. GAO analysis suggests that the selected hurricanes were associated with widely varying effects on overall economic activity and total employment in affected metropolitan areas and counties. Economic activity was lower than expected in the month of the hurricane or some of the three subsequent months in three of the affected metropolitan areas GAO analyzed. Within one year, average economic activity in these three metropolitan areas was similar to or greater than what it had been the year before the hurricane. Total employment was lower than expected in the month of the hurricane or some of the three subsequent months in 80 of the affected counties GAO analyzed. Total employment was higher than pre-hurricane employment on average in 47 of those counties within one year but remained below pre-hurricane employment on average in the other 33 counties for at least one year. Finally, state and local government officials said that the selected hurricanes had significant impacts on communities, local governments, households, and businesses with fewer resources and less expertise, and that challenges faced by households may have impacted local businesses. Communities affected by selected hurricanes have been taking actions to improve resilience, but multiple factors can affect their decisions. Actions taken after selected hurricanes include elevating, acquiring, and rehabilitating homes; flood-proofing public buildings; repairing and upgrading critical infrastructure; constructing flood barriers; and updating building codes. A community’s decision to take resilience actions can depend on the costs and benefits of those actions to the community. Multiple factors affect these costs and benefits, including the likelihood, severity, and location of future disasters, as well as the amount of federal assistance available after a disaster. Finally, vulnerabilities remain in areas affected by selected hurricanes. For example, state and local government officials indicated that many older homes in these areas do not meet current building codes. In reports to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), states indicate they anticipate that the scope of damages via exposure to weather hazards, such as hurricanes, will likely remain high and could expand across regions affected by the selected hurricanes. In addition, some local governments have projected that population will grow in the regions affected by selected hurricanes. For more information, contact Oliver Richard at 202-512-8424 or richardo@gao.gov.
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  • Farm Programs: USDA Should Take Additional Steps to Ensure Compliance with Wetland Conservation Provisions
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has taken steps to increase the consistency of their determinations about where wetlands exist on farmers' lands. For example, NRCS state offices formed teams to make such determinations in the prairie pothole region (see fig.), which covers parts of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. These offices also standardized their wetland determination procedures and included more details, such as the types of data that can be used to identify wetland boundaries. Under wetland conservation provisions in federal law, to receive the benefits of certain USDA farm programs, farmers must not convert wetlands to cropland. Wetlands and Cropland in the Prairie Pothole Region NRCS's primary method to ensure compliance with wetland conservation provisions is conducting annual compliance checks of selected tracts of land for farmers in USDA programs. To select tracts, NRCS draws a national random sample. The sample is to include about 1 percent of tracts subject to wetland the provisions nationally, so many tracts are not sampled for years. For 2014 through 2018, NRCS identified fewer than five farmers with wetland conservation violations per year on the approximately 417,000 tracts in North Dakota and South Dakota—the states with the most wetland acres. Agency officials said NRCS has limited resources to conduct more checks. However, some USDA agencies emphasize risk-based criteria, rather than a random sample, in selecting tracts to check for compliance with other provisions. Doing so makes the checks more efficient by targeting the tracts most likely to have violations. If NRCS used a risk-based approach for its compliance checks (e.g., using information on acres cultivated annually on tracts), it could more efficiently ensure compliance with wetland conservation provisions. If NRCS finds violations, USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) may withhold program benefits from farmers, or it may grant waivers to farmers who acted in good faith, without intent to commit violations. FSA granted 243 of 301 requests for good-faith waivers from 2010 to 2018, according to FSA data. FSA relies on committees of fellow farmers to decide on waivers by considering factors such as prior violations. GAO found that some committees relied on weak justification to grant waivers even if farmers had prior violations and that FSA had not specified what is adequate justification. By specifying what constitutes adequate justification, FSA could better ensure it provides benefits only to eligible farmers. Why GAO Did This Study Wetlands perform vital ecological functions, and draining them can harm water quality and wildlife habitat. Many wetlands were drained for farming before enactment of wetland conservation provisions in 1985. However, millions of acres of wetlands, known as potholes, remain in the prairie pothole region. NRCS determines where wetlands exist on the land of farmers who participate in USDA farm programs, and it identifies violations of wetland provisions. FSA administers farm program benefits. In 2017, USDA's Office of Inspector General reported that NRCS had implemented wetland determination procedures in the prairie pothole region inconsistently. GAO was asked to review USDA's implementation of wetland conservation provisions in the prairie pothole region. This report examines, among other objectives, the steps NRCS has taken to increase the consistency of wetland determinations and the approaches NRCS and FSA use to ensure compliance with the provisions. GAO reviewed agency manuals, data, and files on wetland determinations and waivers, and interviewed agency officials and stakeholder groups.
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    The Department of Justice announced today that it has filed a lawsuit alleging that the owner of rental properties in Elizabeth, New Jersey violated the Fair Housing Act by subjecting tenants to sexual harassment. 
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    In Crime News
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  • Crude Oil Markets: Effects of the Repeal of the Crude Oil Export Ban
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO's analysis of U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data and interviews with industry stakeholders shows that the repeal of the U.S. crude oil export ban is associated with increased crude oil exports—from less than half a million barrels per day in 2015 to almost 3 million barrels per day in 2019. The repeal of the ban expanded the market for U.S. crude oil to overseas buyers and, along with other market factors, allowed U.S. crude oil producers to charge higher prices relative to comparable foreign crude oil. Higher prices and an expanded market for U.S. crude oil further incentivized domestic crude oil production, which had been growing since the shale oil boom began around 2009 (see figure). During the period after the repeal, total U.S. imports of crude oil remained largely unchanged. Annual Production and Exports of U.S. Crude Oil, 2009-2019 GAO's analysis found limited effects associated with the repeal of the ban on the production, export, and import of domestic refined petroleum products, such as gasoline. However, profit margins—which are determined in part by the costs a refiner pays for the crude oil and the earnings a refiner receives from the sale of refined products—likely decreased as the prices refiners paid for domestic crude oil increased relative to international prices. Because gasoline prices are largely determined on the global market, U.S. refiners could not pass on to consumers the additional costs associated with the increase in crude oil prices, resulting in decreased profit margins for U.S. refiners. Finally, after the repeal of the crude oil export ban, the U.S. shipping industry experienced a decline as demand fell for U.S. tankers—known as Jones Act tankers—used to move domestic crude oil between U.S. ports. The increase in the relative price of domestic crude oils associated with the repeal of the export ban may have resulted in some U.S. refineries deciding to use more foreign crude oil. Foreign crude oil is typically transported by foreign tankers, reducing the demand for Jones Act tankers compared to what it would have been if the export ban had remained in place, according to six of the seven shipping industry stakeholders GAO interviewed. Between 1975 and the end of 2015, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act directed a ban on nearly all exports of U.S. crude oil. This ban was not considered a significant policy issue when U.S. oil production was declining and import volumes were increasing. However, U.S. crude oil production roughly doubled from 2009 to 2015, due in part to a boom in shale oil production made possible by advancements in drilling technologies. In December 2015, Congress effectively repealed the ban, allowing the free export of U.S. crude oil worldwide. GAO was asked to provide information on the effects of repealing the crude oil export ban. This report describes the effects of the repeal of the crude oil export ban on the domestic crude oil production, petroleum refining, and related sectors of the U.S. shipping industry. GAO analyzed data from EIA and other federal databases to determine the effects of repealing the export ban. GAO also interviewed a nongeneralizeable sample of economists, market analysts, and stakeholders from the oil and gas, refining, and shipping industries. GAO's analysis focused on the repeal of the crude oil export ban and any effects of the repeal on U.S. crude oil and related industries through March 2020. For more information, contact Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or ruscof@gao.gov.
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