Jan 31, 2023 - Energy & Environment

House Science chair seeks to carve out an independent NOAA

NOAA satellite image showing Hurricane Ian nearing the coast of Florida on Sept. 28, 2022.

NOAA satellite image showing Hurricane Ian nearing the coast of Florida on Sept. 28, 2022.

A key House Republican is putting forward a plan to make the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) an independent agency outside the Department of Commerce.

Why it matters: Removing the agency from a Cabinet-level department could diminish its clout when it comes to securing funding and weighing in on key policy decisions, former senior NOAA officials tell Axios.

  • It would also hollow out the Commerce Department, where NOAA comprises more than 50% of the budget.
  • NOAA plays an outsized role in American daily life, since it is responsible for forecasting the weather and issuing warnings for severe storms. The agency also regulates fisheries and runs some of the top climate change research centers in the world.

State of play: A bill being circulated within the House Science, Space and Technology Committee by chairman Frank Lucas (Okla.) would authorize NOAA and its mission in law for the first time. Lucas plans to formally introduce it this spring.

  • Committee Democrats, led by ranking member Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), are open to supporting the measure but are waiting to see all the details before deciding whether to back it, according to a Democratic committee aide.
  • NOAA, which was created by an executive order in 1970, has always been an awkward fit in the Commerce Department. It was placed there because of a dispute then-president Richard Nixon had with his Interior secretary.
  • However, making it an independent organization could deprive it of Cabinet-level influence.

Yes, but: There is also precedent for the Commerce secretary to meddle with the agency due to political pressure, as occurred during the “Sharpiegate scandalduring Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

  • In that instance, pressure from the White House and Commerce Department leadership forced NOAA to back away from its original forecast for Hurricane Dorian’s impacts, in order to support President Trump’s contention that the storm would threaten Alabama.

Between the lines: A GOP Science Committee aide told Axios that Lucas’ effort is about ensuring that NOAA’s existence and mission is enshrined into law and reorganizing its structure to make its research operations more efficient.

  • “Do we need all the existing line offices here? Do we need to consolidate? Do we need to combine?” the aide said. “We’re not really looking to have some massive reorientation of the agency, but partly it is somewhat of an organizational issue.”
  • The bill would enter at least one polarizing area: it would require a study on moving NOAA’s endangered species and marine protection responsibilities to the Interior Department, which helps regulate energy development.
  • That is likely to encounter opposition on the Senate side, where Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, plans to introduce her own bill to enshrine NOAA into law, according to Democratic committee staff members.
  • The Senate bill is unlikely to push for NOAA's independence.
  • Some of NOAA’s responsibilities also fall under the purview of the House Resources Committee.

What they’re saying: Two past agency leaders told Axios that making NOAA independent would likely be a net plus for the agency, since the Commerce Department controls many of its policy, spending and messaging decisions.

  • “The principle of moving NOAA to be an independent agency, I support 1,000%,” said Tim Gallaudet, who served as an acting NOAA administrator under former President Trump. “I cannot tell you the number of times where progress was impeded by having to go through the bureaucratic layer of the Department of Commerce.“
  • But one former NOAA senior staff member, who spoke anonymously because they still do business with the agency, expressed reservations about NOAA’s ability to continue to secure adequate funding and maintain its visibility if it were an independent agency.

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