Op-ed | Why Congress must enact commercial remote sensing reforms

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Remote sensing is the imaging of Earth from space. It is incredibly valuable for environmental, national security and commercial purposes. Unfortunately, it’s governed by an outdated law that’s in desperate need of updating.

Initially, remote sensing technology was only used by government agencies for national security and scientific research. However, in the 1990s, private companies also realized the potential of satellite imagery. To facilitate the development of this nascent industry, Congress passed the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992. Early private sector efforts focused on providing imagery to U.S. national security agencies, as well as developing alternatives to the Landsat program. Managed at different times by several government agencies, Landsat provides moderate-resolution imagery for applications in science, agriculture and forestry.

Since the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act became law in 1992, the commercial remote sensing industry has multiplied. The private sector has identified a wide array of businesses that are enabled by commercial remote sensing from space. Applications like Google Earth are now available on your phone. Commercial remote sensing companies are helping us collaborate with our allies because the information they produce is not classified and easily shared.

Nonprofits use the imagery to inform disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, and shed light on human rights violations — a use for which even George Clooney has advocated. Scientists use remote satellite data to track land use, deforestation, and ice sheet loss. Others use it to prevent poaching, overfishing, treaty compliance, historical preservation, and archaeology. The financial industry uses commercial imaging to predict crop yields, economic activity, and energy consumption. Farmers can decrease water, pesticide, and fertilizer use; preserve soil; and increase production. Energy companies use the data to more efficiently explore and extract resources and transmit power in a manner that decreases environmental impact.

This explosion of technology and growth in business potential have made the 1992 law obsolete. Moreover, the existing statutory and regulatory structures in the U.S. are stifling the growth of the U.S. commercial remote sensing industry and delaying innovative companies. All of these new applications, and countless others that we have not yet realized, could be lost without legislative reform.

Government approval for U.S. companies takes months, if not years, longer than the 120-day determination timeline required by law. Companies are applying and waiting without any understanding as to why NOAA takes so long to respond. Stakeholders report significant uncertainty with licensing actions, including modifications to operational license conditions without notice or due process.

There are consequences for inaction. American remote sensing startups want to stay in the United States, but they are planning to go overseas due to uncertainty in the regulatory process. Successful entrepreneurs will not expose their company’s fate to draconian regulations when countries like Luxembourg freely provides a flag of convenience. This would be catastrophic for our domestic remote sensing industry as well as the jobs this industry supports. It would also undermine the U.S. government’s ability to influence these company’s operations, and limit U.S. access to the operations of these companies, which would no longer be subject to U.S. jurisdiction. This isn’t a hypothetical. We saw this happen in the 1990s when several U.S. companies seeking to establish space-based radar services, went overseas to Germany and Italy because of regulatory uncertainty here in the United States. Each of those companies went on to dominate the international commercial market — and still do to this day.

To its credit, the Trump administration recognized this problem and directed the Department of Commerce to update its regulations for commercial remote sensing. Unfortunately, the administration is still limited by the outdated and obsolete 1992 law. At a recent meeting of the Advisory Committee for Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES), the chair of the committee commented on the draft regulations being developed, “I find, at the moment, that the draft rule is wanting across the board, and it’s not close.”

That’s why Congress must pass the much-needed reforms outlined in the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act. The bill updates the regulatory process, and reorganizes the Department of Commerce to enable a 21st century commercial remote sensing industry in the U.S. By consolidating and transferring these offices back to the Department of Commerce, we can expedite licensing by reducing redundant bureaucratic layers and create efficiencies through consolidation. More importantly, we will elevate the office within the Department and allow for greater coordination with the other offices that deal with export controls and trade issues. Without the transfer, there is no voice for U.S. technological leadership, innovation, and economic prosperity in the interagency process. By returning the offices to the Department of Commerce, we will also empower the Secretary to advocate for U.S. interests with international partners.

There is bipartisan support for such efforts. Reforming these offices was recommended at hearings before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee; by the Advisory Committee for Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs; by the administration’s budget requests and Space Policy Directive 2; and supported by legislation that passed both the House and Senate last Congress. We must act now before the commercial remote sensing industry leaves the U.S. behind.

U.S. Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) is the ranking member of the House Science space subcommittee.