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Why the NYT’s criticism of DOE’s weatherization program misses the point

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"Why the NYT’s criticism of DOE’s weatherization program misses the point"

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Guest blogger John Atcheson just retired from a long career in government service, most recently as a Senior Analyst working for the DOE on weatherization. His job consisted primarily of  analyzing innovative policies to increase the effectiveness of the Weatherization and State Grant Programs.

Yesterday, the NY Times ran a story on a report by DOE’s Inspector General pointing to problems in the implementation of the scaled up the Weatherization Assistance Program under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  To be sure, the implementation has not been as fast as some expected. And as usual, “bureaucrats” received the brunt of the blame.

But the bottom line is that the program has moved with speed and is poised to move much faster from this point forward.  Since it’s Winter Olympics time, let me offer an analogy:  The NYT is reporting on the pace of ascending the mountain on the ski lift, while ignoring the pace at which the skiers will descend – and the benefits that will accrue.

Here are the facts.

When Congress passed the Recovery plan, they did two things.

First, they expanded the size of the Weatherization program dramatically.  It had been funded at between $204 to $250 million for the previous 3 years to $5 billion in 2009, a more than 20 fold increase.

Second, they inserted provisions requiring certain wage standards – a provision built upon the Davis Bacon Act.  This represented a fundamental change in the way labor costs had to be established and required a complex legal finding in each region.

The Office of Management and Budget also issued complex and thorough monitoring and reporting requirements to be sure the money was well spent.

All of these factors created challenges in implementing the program, but as outlined below, DOE’s Weatherization Program took decisive action and the nation is poised to reap the benefits.  But you wouldn’t know that from reading the NYT.

Ramping Up

DOE developed a strategy to weatherize as many as 1 million homes per year with the increased funding from the Recovery Act. In a little over 6 months, the Department issued necessary guidances and fiscal management guidelines (including the Davis-Bacon Act requirements), developed and expanded training programs for new staff, and issued 50% of all grant funds to every state to initiate activity.

We are now set to reap the benefits – it’s time for the downhill skiing portion of the program. Beyond creating some 133,000 new jobs , displacing more than 18 billion barrels of oil, the expanded program will garner some impressive benefits, including:

  1. Returning $2.73 for every $1 invested.  These include $1.65 in energy-related benefits and $1.07 in other benefits such as reducing pollution, unemployment, and adverse health impacts.
  2. Saving approximately $350 per household annually on household energy bills.  These homes avoid an estimated 1.79 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per home annually.
  3. Reducing average gas space heating use by 32% annually.

Pinpointing the Problem

The main challenge facing the Weatherization program right now is lack of state capacity to implement it.  As the IG report noted, many states have hiring freezes and are unable to add the staff essential to ensure that the expanded program is well run.  As Robert Reich and Paul Krugman have noted, this problem occurred with other ARRA programs,  and it directly threatens the nation’s recovery.

The problem is not “bureaucrats.”  The problem is that fiscal realities are causing states to contract across the board at a time when the public sector needs to expand.

The Weatherization program is a proven job creator – it was responsible for 21,000 new jobs in 2008.  Let’s fix the real problem rather than take cheap shots at anonymous bureaucrats.

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4 Responses to Why the NYT’s criticism of DOE’s weatherization program misses the point

  1. Jeff Huggins says:

    Striking

    I find it striking — don’t you? — how The New York Times will examine and report on some report from three years ago, or Government Program Z, or Scientist Q, or nearly any other thing, EXCEPT that it won’t examine and report on America’s most profitable company, one that is misleading and confusing people on its own front pages.

    I call them– ExxonMobil, if you don’t know yet — the Trillion-Pound-Plus Elephant on the table, trying to deceive you by doing tricks with its tail even as it stomps on the health of future generations of people, other species, and the nature of the climate itself.

    Let me be clear, please: The use of ExxonMobil products alone, in a single year, generates over One Trillion Pounds of CO2. If you include the amount of CO2 generated by their internal operations, the number is undoubtedly much, much higher. I’ve asked them for the figures, and they won’t provide them. So much for transparency and sincerity.

    Then — back to the point — The New York Times refuses to do any real examination of, or reporting on, ExxonMobil. It is SHAMEFUL. I repeat: SHAMEFUL.

    I have communicated about this, nearly zillions of times, to Andy Revkin. I’ve also communicated about this, a few less then zillions of time, but still plenty, to Curtis Brainard.

    Often, I see sizable ExxonMobil ads in The Times, often on the front page. The Times refuses to examine ExxonMobil, and provide the public with the full straight scoop, in the public interest. And, they do so to the point of being obviously ridiculous.

    I am not one to use harsh terms, usually, and through most of my career I never did. But this situation is getting ridiculous, and it is time to name names, more and more.

    New York Times, you seem to be willing to explore and report on all sorts of things, old and new, pink and blue, false and true, beans and stew (sorry about that one). When are you going to start telling us a key part of the story of the century? Please. When will it be?

    Sigh,

    Jeff

  2. Ralph Bloom says:

    What does Exxon Mobil have to do with winterizing? People can do it yourself with most of these projects and america doen’t need to borrow billions from China. The beaureaucratic overhead and load on this spending is outrageous.
    This is as bad as the DOE giving RFiskars 500 million to import cars from finland because they are 89,000 dollar hybrids.

  3. Sou says:

    Hope they don’t run into the sort of problems we’ve been having here in Australia:

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/02/19/2824707.htm

    A good idea for the environment and the recession, but poorly implemented. The program created lots of jobs. Now they are paying the industry some millions to keep the installers employed till the new scheme kicks in. Lessons to be learnt by others, hopefully.

  4. I’m glad we are getting more of the story here. It’s good to know why the weatherization process has been so difficult; people are quick to criticize without knowing all the details. I’m happy as long as I see that things are getting done. It seems like the government is working on getting this process in order, and that’s all we can ask for. We’ll just have to patient for things to run smoothly – as with most things.