Neil Jacobs testified at a Senate Commerce Committee confirmation hearing regarding his nomination to be NOAA administrator March 11. Credit: Senate Commerce Committee

WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Committee backed the nomination of Neil Jacobs to be the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration May 20, despite some lingering concerns by some members.

On a voice vote, the committee voted to favorably report the nomination of Jacobs as NOAA administrator and undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere. Three members of the committee, Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), formally recorded no votes on the nomination.

The ranking member of the committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), said she would vote in favor of Jacobs’ nomination, but had reservations. “While I agree that this agency needs a permanent leader, I also believe we need to find all the facts regarding the performance and suitability of Dr. Jacobs,” she said.

Cantwell said she had wanted the committee to wait until the Commerce Department’s inspector general had completed its investigation into actions during Hurricane Dorian last year, including whether the agency leadership had placed political pressure on forecasters to modify forecasts to align with statements by President Donald Trump. That controversy became known as “Sharpiegate” after Trump displayed a hurricane forecast map that appeared to have been modified with a black marker.

Jacobs, previously confirmed by the Senate as assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction, has been the acting NOAA administrator since early 2019. “I will remain serious about understanding what happened from the inspector general before we move forward on this nomination on the floor,” Cantwell said.

Jacobs appeared before the committee for a confirmation hearing in March, where he did face questions from Cantwell about the agency’s scientific integrity policy. That testimony, though, did not address NOAA’s role in operating weather satellites or its plans for a new weather satellite architecture the agency has been studying.

NOAA has been without a Senate-confirmed administrator since the beginning of the Trump administration in January 2017. The White House nominated Barry Myers to the position in the fall of 2017, but he faced opposition from Democratic senators because of conflict-of-interest concerns from his time running AccuWeather, a commercial weather forecasting company. The committee favorably reported the nomination on a strict party-line vote, and did so again last year when the White House resubmitted the nomination.

Myers’ nomination, though, was never taken up by the full Senate, and Myers withdrew his name from consideration in November 2019, citing health issues. The White House formally nominated Jacobs to be NOAA administrator in December.

Among those supporting the Jacobs nomination was Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who also chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds NOAA. “I became acquainted with Dr. Neil Jacobs and I supported his nomination today,” he said at the markup. “I’m anxious to have a Senate-confirmed administrator at NOAA. It’s been a long time since that’s been the case.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...