Don’t disrupt NOAA’s climate change activities with Obama’s proposed agency re-shuffle


“How does it help us with the things we need from NOAA?” we said to ClimateWire, questioning the President’s proposal to subsume the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration into the Department of the Interior. “Is it going to help those things or throw them into turmoil and create mischief on the Hill?” The proposed NOAA restructuring could be disruptive to carrying out the agency’s already challenging and sensitive climate change responsibilities. And it could make it less independent when, if anything, it should be more independent.

Lauren Morello wrote in ClimateWire (subscription) January 16 (“Would the Interior Department make a good home for NOAA? Will Congress buy it?”):

A new White House push to streamline federal operations could dramatically transform federal climate research, dissolving the Commerce Department and sending the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to a new home in the Interior Department.

Administration officials said Friday they’re still working out the details of how to merge NOAA’s broad portfolio — which includes climate and atmospheric research, fisheries management, weather forecasting, environmental satellites and its own uniformed service, the NOAA Corps — into Interior’s mix of land management, species protection, science, and oil and gas industry oversight.

The move, which would require congressional approval, is part of a White House plan to cut costs and consolidate several existing trade and business agencies, including several within the Commerce Department — a plan administration officials say would save the government $3 billion over the next decade.

“The whole of NOAA moves to the Interior Department,” the deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Jeff Zients, told reporters. …

Morello noted that a group of former high-ranking government officials proposed in 2009 that NOAA be merged with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), an agency within Interior, to form a new Earth science agency. But creating a new, independent science agency is not what Obama’s proposal calls for.

“Would NOAA’s climate mission escape damage?” Morello asks, noting that the agency

“…has come under fire from congressional Republicans for its plan to create a new ‘NOAA Climate Service’ and its struggle to keep its next-generation weather and climate satellites on time and on budget.

“‘[I]f you were setting this up in 1970, NOAA and USGS should have been together in a federal science agency,’ said Rick Piltz, executive director of Climate Science Watch. ‘But right now, how does it help us with the things we need from NOAA? … Is it going to help those things or throw those things into turmoil and create mischief on the Hill?’”

My concern is primarily with NOAA’s ability to carry out its climate-related activities – global observing systems, research on climate change and variability, predictive modeling, scientifically based assessments, and various ‘climate services’ and ‘decision-support’ activities – without being sabotaged by Congressional climate change denialists and budget slashers, and without political interference within the executive branch with the scientific integrity of the agency and its communications.

I have been critical of NOAA on a number of counts during the past six years, but on the whole it must be said that NOAA is an essential agency on climate change and on a wide range of other issues, and does a lot of excellent work. Further, NOAA has taken the lead among US Global Change Research Program participating agencies in stepping up to the thorny challenge of developing ways to connect climate research and assessment effectively with public communication and the needs of societal management.

What happens when policymakers decide to restructure multi-billion-dollar agencies with complex management structures? What is likely to happen, for some time, is new costs and significant distraction of both policy-level leadership and professional-level managers as they navigate the restructuring. This should only be done when the advantages are obvious and the need is great.  Is there really any need at all to put NOAA under the Secretary of the Interior? (And remember, Obama’s main stated goal is to merge a bunch of business and trade-related agencies to save a few hundred million dollars a year. NOAA, a $4 billion-plus agency, is being dealt with in a seemingly ancillary fashion, because if the Commerce Department, as such, goes away, NOAA doesn’t have a home within a cabinet department.)

NOAA is engaged in a range of climate-related activities right now that are very significant for the future of both research and society:

  • Getting the Joint Polar Satellite System on track and keeping it there, well-managed and properly funded, is crucial to the future of the science community’s ability to measure a range of essential variables on a global scale to advance understanding of how human activities are affecting the Earth system. NOAA is under great pressure to get this system, which had problems of long standing, right, and is under budget pressure that makes that task all the more difficult.
  • NOAA’s Fiscal 2012 budget request for $419 million as part of the multiagency US Global Change Research Program makes it one of the top three climate research agencies, along with NASA and the National Science Foundation. Congress cut NOAA’s climate research budget from the 2012 request, and we can expect continuing downward pressure on this essential set of research activities.
  • NOAA is the lead agency for supporting the now-ongoing National Climate Assessment. Bringing the National Assessment back to life after years lost when it was suppressed by the Bush Administration, this is an important activity, and what should become a vital continuing stream of activities, for connecting scientists and other experts with ‘decision-makers’ and ‘stakeholders’ nationwide. The National Assessment project, now and in the future, must not be undermined.
  • Republicans in Congress blocked NOAA’s ability to establish a Climate Service as a new line office in the agency. This management tool was intended, and hopefully in the not-too-distant future will become, a way to orchestrate and rationalize a collection of activities designed to connect climate research with management decisionmaking in various sectors of society. Climate service-like activities, now in various parts of the agency, need to continue as well as can be done given budget and institutional limitations.

I could potentially be convinced otherwise by a serious argument that is far more substantive and worthwhile than anything Obama has offered so far. But at this point I’d say Obama’s proposal to restructure NOAA into the Department of the Interior should be shot down.

Frances Beinecke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, did a good post, from a different but not conflicting perspective, on why this proposal should be shot down (“Obama’s Call to Move NOAA Could Undermine Ocean Scientists’ Independence”).  It included this:

NOAA is the most important voice America has on the state of our oceans. It is also one of our best resources for understanding the changing atmosphere and the increase in severe storm events. Its scientific expertise and data-driven decisions are world renowned.

More than ever before, our oceans need thoughtful, science-based management. Depleted fisheries, growing acidification of ocean waters from carbon pollution, and expanded drilling in ever-more extreme environments are just some of the issues nation has to tackle. Now is the time for our oceans experts to apply their skills, not lose their independence.

Housing NOAA within a department whose focus on the oceans is almost entirely extractive (permitting offshore oil drilling and exploration, for example) could erode the capability and mute the voices of the government’s chief oceans experts.

I served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, and one year ago we delivered our findings about what caused the deadly spill and how America could avoid another oil disaster.

In our report, we underscored the critical importance of having strong and independent scientific and environmental input into offshore drilling decisions and, to that end, recommended a strengthened role for NOAA in the decision-making process.  Moving NOAA into the Department of the Interior is not a recipe for strengthening NOAA or ensuring its independence.

David Goldston at NRDC also had a critical discussion (“Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Why NOAA Shouldn’t Be Moved to the Interior Department”).

Juliet Eilperin in the Washington Post had a piece on January 13 (“Expert to Obama: You don’t understand salmon”) that quoted Obama’s ill-informed comment on salmon, an example of how lame the White House commentary has been on this issue so far.

Our friends at the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement:

“Moving the agency that oversees the health of our oceans and sea life to the same agency that permits offshore drilling is courting trouble. Under Obama’s plan, NOAA’s mission to safeguard our waters could easily be compromised by Interior’s drive to expand offshore drilling. …

“Our oceans are already in trouble with pollution, overfishing, ocean acidification and climate change. Shuffling NOAA around will only distract resources that can better be spent on taking care of our oceans.”

And our friends at Food & Water Watch hit the nail on the head in a statement by executive director Wenonah Hauter, which had this:

Instead of moving NOAA from one department to another, it should be made an independent agency, as was suggested by the 2003 Pew Oceans Commission and its chairman, Leon Panetta. And its mandate should be protecting the oceans, not protecting business interests.

Wouldn’t that make more sense than Obama’s proposal? Do what they will with the Commerce Department, but how about extracting NOAA from Commerce and letting it carry on as an ‘independent agency’, like NASA, or EPA, or the National Science Foundation – i.e., with an Administrator rather than a Cabinet Secretary, but with the Administrator still Senate-confirmed and serving at the pleasure of the President.

With its component parts consisting of the National Weather Service, the National Ocean Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Environmental Satellite Service and the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, it’s quite complex enough to be a free-standing agency.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t this minimize disruption to NOAA’s ongoing activities, rather than tying the agency up in a complex restructuring?


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2 Responses to Don’t disrupt NOAA’s climate change activities with Obama’s proposed agency re-shuffle

  1. sailrick says:

    I agree. NOAA would be better as an independent agency.

    Another invaluable service of NOAA is navigation charts for all mariners in U.S. waters. Both paper and electronic marine navigation charts. They also do the coastal surveys that amass the data for the charts.

  2. Mike MacCracken says:

    What bothers me is they are focusing on reorganizing rather than addressing the climate change issue. My experience is that reorganization delays getting to things–good people can make almost any organization work, while incompetents and malcontents can make a supposedly good organizational structure fail.

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