Editorial | An Improvement in More Ways than One

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In a sign that bipartisanship is still alive, if not necessarily well, in the U.S. House of Representatives, lawmakers have drafted and passed a bill aimed at improving the nation’s weather forecasting capabilities without diverting resources from climate change research, a political hot-button activity.

The Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2014 (H.R. 2413) revises controversial language that was included in a version of the legislation introduced by House Republicans last year. As interpreted, that language would have required the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to prioritize near-term weather forecasting capabilities at the expense of climate research, thus making the bill unpalatable to Democrats, who are a minority in the House but control the Senate.

The new version, which like the original was sponsored by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a member of the House Science Committee, takes the sting out of that language. It also authorizes the funding necessary to implement the provisions that are aimed directly at improving near-term forecasting. 

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the updated bill authorizes $360 million over the next three years to improve NOAA’s ability to forecast severe weather events, a sum that if appropriated would be more than sufficient to carry out the mandates. This contrasts with the previous version, which the CBO said funded only some of the authorized activities, something that likely made climate change research advocates nervous.

The latest bill was thus able to garner support from Democrats in winning approval on the House floor April 1. It should stand a reasonable chance of passage if taken up in the Senate, where the original version would have been dead on arrival.

In addition to its several provisions aimed at improving NOAA’s near-term forecasting models, the bill, like the original version, lends comfort and support to several startups aiming to launch meteorological sensors and sell the data they collect to a range of customers including the U.S. government. It accomplishes this in part by removing what some perceive as legal barriers to NOAA’s use of commercially provided data and hosted payload arrangements. That said, the hosted payload language, which would remove prohibitions against “the placement of weather satellite instruments on cohosted government or private payloads,” could use a little tweaking for clarity’s sake. Perhaps the activity could be recast as “the placement of weather satellite instruments as hosted payloads on government and commercial satellites,” or something similar.    

The bill also calls for the Commerce Department — of which NOAA is a part — and other relevant agencies to devise a strategy for evaluating and procuring commercial weather data. 

These measures would not obligate NOAA to buy commercial data, nor would they require the agency to nurture companies planning to provide those data with seed money. But they would send a strong signal to prospective investors that should these startups succeed in deploying capabilities that can contribute to weather forecasting models in a positive way, they have a ready and willing customer in the U.S. government. 

In most of its aspects, the bill that passed in the House is practically indistinguishable from the 2013 version, the only notable differences being the omission of the provisions affecting climate change research and the authorization of sufficient funding to cover the legislation’s implementation. House Republicans appear to have listened to Democrats’ objections and adjusted the legislation accordingly, thus dramatically improving its chances of becoming law. 

In today’s toxic partisan political environment, the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2014 stands out as an example of how the legislative process can and should work. The bill deserves serious consideration in the Senate.