Revised NOAA Bill Keeps Commercial Weather Provisions Intact

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WASHINGTON — Now out of draft form and up for formal consideration by a panel of U.S. House lawmakers, a Republican-authored bill that would create a tornado warning program and curtail climate research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would also open the door for commercialization of space-based weather observation. 

The Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2013 (H.R. 2413), which had not been scheduled for markup at press time, was filed June 18 by Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.), the subcommittee’s vice chairman, as a replacement for a draft bill that began making the rounds on Capitol Hill back in May. Among the new bill’s supporters is Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the full House Science, Space and Technology Committee and a climate change skeptic. The head of NOAA and House lawmakers discussed the new bill in a June 26 hearing of the House Science environment subcommittee.

If the proposal becomes law, it would ease restrictions on the commercialization of government weather satellite programs by allowing the Commerce Department, which encompasses NOAA, to contract with commercial providers for data acquisition. It would also allow hosting of private weather instruments aboard government satellites, and of government instruments aboard private satellites. 

Acting NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said in prepared remarks June 26 that “we do have a few serious concerns about some aspects of the bill.” 

Included among Sullivan’s concerns was the proposal’s directive to shift a portion of NOAA’s climate research funds into weather research. This has to do, in part, with NOAA’s technical definition of “climate” and “weather.” Climate, in a forecasting context, applies to time horizons beyond two weeks; weather applies to anything within two weeks, Sullivan said.

Sullivan’s prepared testimony also noted that NOAA is “in continual dialogue with the commercial sector and our international partners, and we recognize the value and importance of these public-private and international partnerships.”

At the hearing, held just a day after President Barack Obama unveiled a major initiative aimed at climate change mitigation, lawmakers were split along party lines in their opinion of Bridenstine’s bill.

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), chairman of the subcommittee, lauded the bill because it “prioritizes forward-looking weather research, improves procurement of observing systems, data from space and land, and opens up NOAA processes to encourage private-sector weather solutions.” 

Democrats, on the other hand, objected to the bill’s directive to cut back on NOAA climate research. 

“Emphasizing weather research over climate research is likely to be counter productive,” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), the ranking member of the environment subcommittee, said at the hearing. “We need progress in all of these areas to improve forecasting.”

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) was more blunt.

“The legislation is really flawed, in my view,” Edwards said. “NOAA is a multimission agency, and that means its priorities, ocean, atmosphere, climate and weather are interconnected. … It’s hard for me to believe that you can separate or slash funding for climate research when all of our weather scientists and our forecasters indicate the interconnectivity that Dr. Sullivan has discussed.”