Obama Proposal Could Weaken Key Climate Agency

By Andrew Freedman

An Obama administration plan to cut costs by combining several government agencies may make good political sense, coming in the midst of the Republican presidential primary season, with its heated small-government rhetoric. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea from a policy perspective.

NOAA Hurricane Hunters. Credit: NOAA. 

In fact, the White House proposal that would move the country’s oceans and atmosphere agency — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — from its current home in the Commerce Department and fold it into the Interior Department, could severely undermine America’s climate and weather research efforts, as well as marine resource protection. Worse, it comes at a time when climate change beseeches us to build those capacities.

NOAA is the lead agency studying and predicting extreme weather events and long-term climate change, critical responsibilities that put it front and center this past year when the U.S. was struck with a record 14 weather and climate events that caused at least $1 billion in damage. Those included multiple deadly tornado outbreaks, an East Coast hurricane, and a devastating drought in Texas.

More important, NOAA’s National Weather Service saved thousands of lives by issuing timely watches and warnings of these events. In addition, NOAA’s research labs, which produce some of the most cutting-edge climate science research in the world, helped put the extreme events in historical context. As the climate continues to warm beyond any level seen in modern human history, it’s imperative to have more — not less — scientific knowledge to inform our decisions about how to cope with emerging climate change impacts, such as an increase in extreme weather events.

Dan Sobien, the director of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said that a move to the Interior Department simply isn’t warranted. “If something’s working, then why try and fix it?” he said.

A bureaucratic reshuffling could diminish NOAA’s ability to forecast and respond to similar events, and disrupt research into long-term climate change by tying up the agency’s leadership as it focuses on the reorganization, and portends heated battles with Congress over funding.

Rick Piltz of Climate Science Watch said he worries that placing NOAA within the Interior Department will make the agency an even bigger target for Congressional budget cuts. 

“What happens when policymakers decide to restructure multi-billion-dollar agencies with complex management structures?” Piltz wrote on his organization’s website. “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.”

NOAA is already facing an uphill battle on Capitol Hill, where “climate” has become a four-letter word in recent years, as lawmakers skeptical of manmade climate change have asserted their influence.

For example, in December Congress denied NOAA’s request to form a National Climate Service to meet America’s growing need for climate science information, and the agency is facing tough choices this year to adequately fund the construction of a new weather satellite without short-changing hurricane research flights and other research programs.

Perhaps the biggest conflict, though, between NOAA’s work and the Interior Department concerns marine life.

NOAA is mandated to protect marine species and regulate fisheries. Conversely, one of the Interior Department’s roles is to manage the country’s energy development activities both on land and offshore. The department houses the permitting agencies for offshore oil and gas drilling, and its lax oversight of offshore drilling was cited as a main contributor to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA officials have opposed Interior Department permitting plans by raising scientific concerns regarding risks to marine life.

Agencies that have a conflicted mission aren’t just ineffective; they can have damaging, even deadly, results. The Federal Aviation Administration served two masters until a deadly 1996 crash finally forced a change to the organization’s mission statement. Until then, the FAA saw its mission as both promoting the aviation industry and ensuring the safety of that industry. That resulted in an agency that frequently held off on imposing regulations out of concern that it would saddle airlines with greater costs. Aviation safety advocates nicknamed it “the tombstone agency,” since it seemed to only take action following deadly crashes.

Merging NOAA with Interior could result in a similar situation, with a cabinet-level agency tasked with both ensuring the health of marine life in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic, as well as promoting energy resource development in those same areas. Clearly the two goals already conflict, and NOAA may be placed in a weaker position if it is housed within the Interior Department.

As David Goldston of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, wrote, “This reorganization proposal would have made more sense coming from NOAA’s enemies.”

Hopefully, the Obama administration and Congress will examine this proposal more closely and determine that there are better places for NOAA to be than within the Interior Department, including right where it is now. Moving it to an agency whose offices manage the extraction of natural resources would be a step backwards.

NOTE: Climate Central has received funding from NOAA for scientific research and science communications. The views expressed here are the views of the author alone and do not represent the position of Climate Central or NOAA.