Bill would limit weather services

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Proponents say the National Weather Service shouldn’t be competing with private sector forecasting firms

Proponents say the National Weather Service shouldn’t be competing with private sector forecasting firms

Legislation introduced by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) would prohibit the National Weather Service from providing almost all of its current services to the public other than severe weather forecasts unless, in the words of the bill, “the private sector is unwilling or unable to provide such product or service.”

The bill, filed in April, has caused the American Geological Institute to issue an alert urging the public to “oppose limitations on NOAA.” However, that same legislation, known as the National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005, has brought praise from the private weather forecasting industry.

“We believe that it will be a significant benefit to the public, to people such as boaters, as well as for our industry,” says Barry Myers, executive vice president of AccuWeather Inc., a private weather forecasting firm. Myers says the legislation would force the National Weather Service to do a better job of getting out severe weather forecasts.

Opponents of the bill say its wording is vague. “Our concern is that it’s unclear, based on the language in the bill, whether the [NWS] data will need to be removed from the National Weather Service Web site or any other NOAA Web sites,” says Linda Rowan, AGI director of government affairs. “NOAA’s doing a great job of making their data available, which the taxpayers are paying for. A lot of people use that data: geologists, farmers, boaters. Aviation uses the data, and the public uses the data for warnings, alerts and other general uses.”

Rowan says her organization is concerned that unless it’s a severe weather forecast, the National Weather Service might not be allowed to offer any information about weather. “It’s paid for by us taxpayers, and it should be available to those who use it for a variety of purposes,” she says. “There doesn’t seem to be any reason to restrict the data they put out.”

Santorum spokesman Robert Traynham says that if the bill is made law, most Americans wouldn’t notice a difference in how they receive their weather information. “Sen. Santorum’s legislation restores the NWS’s non-competition policy that was in effect from 1991 to December 2004,” he says. “In 2004, the National Weather Service repealed its non-competition and non-duplication policy with the private sector, [affecting] hundreds of Pennsylvania employees from different companies in Pennsylvania, and veering the NWS away from its core duties of collecting and issuing severe weather alerts.”

The legislation states that NWS’s “duties and responsibilities” are to protect life and property by the preparation and issuance of severe weather forecasts and warnings designed for the protection of life and property of the general public and, among other things, the provision of reports, forecasts, warnings, and other advice to the secretary of transportation and other persons.

The legislation would allow NWS to provide products or services when there is a private party willing to do the work only in the event that the government is obliged by international aviation agreements to provide those services.

Moreover, the bill would require that the service make any data, information, guidance, forecasts and warnings that it receives, collects, creates or prepares available “in real time and without delay for internal use, in a manner that ensures that all members of the public have the opportunity for simultaneous and equal access” to the information.

AccuWeather’s Myers says that in two recent instances NWS has been slow to release important emergency information that it had gathered. During a blizzard in New York last January, he says, some reports were delayed by up to 12 hours, so they were of no value to emergency authorities. He says that when Hurricane Charley intensified last autumn, there were reports that were held by the National Hurricane Center for 15 minutes before they were released to public entities.

Asked what the National Weather Service does now that it couldn’t do under the legislation, Myers says, “We don’t know that. We see a number of things NOAA has done that is duplicative and competitive [with private providers],” he says. This includes specialized information for radio stations, newspapers, utility companies, agribusiness, and commodities traders, he says.

“These are all areas that we provide information to as an industry and don’t feel a government agency funded by the taxpayers should be providing those specialized services,” Myers says. “They should be serving the public and also providing the best warnings of severe weather, hurricanes and floods that they can. And we don’t see that happening. We see them misdirected into areas that are duplicative.”

Myers says AccuWeather relies on NWS data, among other sources, for forecasts it provides to its customers. The other sources include the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Agriculture, he says.

Myers says he has contributed $2,750 to Santorum political campaigns and that some other company executives have donated larger amounts. “I hardly think … that small contributions of that sort influence anything,” he says.