NOAA administrator nominee sees satellite programs as a priority

by

WASHINGTON — The businessman nominated by the White House to be the next administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Nov. 29 it will be a priority for him to maintain the agency’s network of weather satellites.

In a confirmation hearing held by the Senate Commerce Committee, Barry Myers, the chief executive of weather forecasting company AccuWeather, also expressed interest in alternative commercial weather data sources that NOAA is currently testing the utility of.

“Certainly the satellite programs are a challenge,” he said when asked by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) about balancing investment in satellites versus other programs in the agency. “We have the best satellite program, I believe, in the world, and we have plans to continue to maintain it as such.”

Myers didn’t elaborate on those plans. The Trump administration’s 2018 budget request offered full funding for the ongoing Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R (GOES-R) and Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) programs. However, it cut funding for the Polar Follow-On program, which covers the third and fourth JPSS satellites, potentially delaying the launches of those satellites, a move criticized by some in Congress.

He did, though, appear to endorse the use of commercial satellite weather data in addition to data from NOAA satellites. “We’re fortunate that we have new companies that are starting to come into this space with low orbit satellites that are smaller and do different or complementary missions,” he said. “We need to look at all of those for solutions to the burgeoning costs” of government satellites.

Myers appeared to be referring to efforts by several companies to develop constellations of small satellites that collect weather data, particularly by observing GPS signals as they pass through the atmosphere. NOAA awarded contracts to two such companies, GeoOptics and Spire, in 2016 as part of an initial round of its Commercial Weather Data Pilot program, with plans to carry out a second round in 2018.

Very little of the 90-minute hearing dealt with NOAA satellite programs. Myers, in his opening statement, mentioned the need “to ensure continuity and cost-control of our satellite programs” as one of several priorities he saw at the agency. Later, he agreed with Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) that NOAA satellite data supports national security missions as well as civil applications.

Senators, in particular the committee’s Democrats, were focused instead on concerns of potential conflicts of interest Myers might have leading NOAA, given his leadership of a weather forecasting company owned by family members. “It’s obviously a concern to me,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the committee, in his opening statement. “We must be sure that you will not have a conflict of interest with a company owned by your brothers, previously run by you.”

Myers, in his opening statement and in response to later questions from senators, said he would divest himself of any interest in AccuWeather if confirmed. “My wife and I will resign from every company, board or organization that could be in conflict with my new role,” he said. “We’ve also agreed to sell all of our ownership interest, shares and options, in AccuWeather and all related companies. There will be a complete separation.”

He also said, in several lines of questions from senators, he supported research by NOAA scientists on climate change, and their ability to communicate those results to the public. That included agreeing with the statement, posed several times by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), that humans are the leading cause of climate change.

The hearing was far less contentious than one held four weeks earlier by the same committee regarding the nomination of Jim Bridenstine to be NASA administrator. At the end of the hearing, one senator said it was “highly likely” that Myers would ultimately be confirmed.

“I think you’ve done an outstanding job at this hearing today,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (D-Alaska), who chaired the hearing in his role as chairman of the oceans, atmosphere, fisheries, and Coast Guard subcommittee. “You’re very well qualified.”