Commercial Weather Provisions in NOAA Bill Survive First Vote in House

by

WASHINGTON — A bill that would create inroads for commercial weather satellites at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cleared an early legislative hurdle July 9 after a House panel approved the proposal by a voice vote.

The Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2013 (H.R. 2413), introduced in June by Republicans on the House Science, Space and Technology environment subcommittee, would amend a U.S. law barring the privatization of taxpayer-funded weather satellites to make it clear that NOAA is allowed to buy commercial data and host government weather instruments on commercial satellites, and vice versa. The amended law would read as follows:

Neither the President nor any other official of the Government shall make any effort to lease, sell, or transfer to the private sector, or commercialize, any portion of the weather satellite systems operated by the Department of Commerce or any successor agency. This prohibition shall not extend to — (1) the purchase of weather data through contracts with commercial providers; or (2) the placement of weather satellite instruments on cohosted government or private payloads.

Thanks to a July 9 amendment from the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), the bill also would require NOAA, by June 30, 2014, to examine how GPS radio occultation sensors and geostationary hyperspectral sounders — two weather observation instruments that have aroused private sector interest — might fit into the existing U.S. forecasting network.

The bill must be marked up by the full committee before it can go to the House floor for a vote. No full-committee markup had been scheduled as of July 9. The commercial data provisions were a relatively small part of the Republican-sponsored bill, which was penned by Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.), the subcommittee’s vice chairman. Much of the bill is focused on shifting NOAA resources to favor near-term weather forecasting activities and research at the expense of longer-term climate forecasting.

That did not sit well with subcommittee Democrats, who in hearings prior to the July 9 markup chafed at the idea that climate forecasting is any less important than weather forecasting.

Acting NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan added her voice to the chorus of concerns about cutting climate activities in a June 26 hearing, pointing out that, in a forecasting context, “climate” refers to anything with a time horizon longer than two weeks.