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Sun, Apr 24, 2005

NWS/NOAA Threatened By Legislation

Please Don't Take My Sunshine Away

Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has introduced a bill to prevent the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from providing information that is available from a commercial vendor. The bill is intended to prohibit federal meteorologists from competing with companies like AccuWeather and the Weather Channel.

Currently, forecasts and weather data are available from the National Weather Service for free primarily through its website. All of that data may disappear if this bill is passed.

The bill, The National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005, lays out responsibilities for the government agencies and also sets limitations. The bill states that the Secretary of Commerce shall, through the National Weather Service, be responsible for the preparation and issuance of severe weather forecasts and warnings designed for the protection of life and property of the general public.

However, the next section of the bill is what concerns many. It states that the Secretary of Commerce shall not provide, or assist other entities in providing, a product or service that is or could be provided by the private sector unless the Secretary determines that the private sector is unwilling or unable to provide such product or service.

Exceptions exist for "Life and Property" and for the government to to provide products or services under international aviation agreements.

Supporters believe the bill will allow the NWS to focus on it's core missions, but critics argue that the wording of the bill is vague. A spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told the Palm Beach Post that the bill threatens to push the weather service back to a "pre-Internet era". Nelson serves on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has been assigned to consider the bill.

Some believe that large amounts of federal weather data would have to be removed from the internet. The commerce secretary, Carlos Gutierrez, would have to decide what information to provide, although legal challenges could follow.

Barry Myers, is the executive vice president of AccuWeather, based in State College, Pa. He said the bill would make the public safer by allowing the weather service to spend its resources on hurricanes, tsunamis and other dangers.

"The National Weather Service has not focused on what its core mission should be, which is protecting other people's lives and property," said Myers to the Post. "It spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year, every day, producing forecasts of 'warm and sunny.'"

Accuweather has been critical of the weather service and NOAA. The company accused federal agencies of withholding data on hurricanes and other hazards, and failing to ensure that employees don't feed upcoming forecasts to favored investors in farming and energy markets.

The competition got tough last year when NOAA changed a 1991 policy against providing services that private companies could provide and began offering raw data on the internet. The agency has improved its web pages and made them simpler to use.

Although NOAA has not taken sides on the bill, Ed Johnson, the weather service's director of strategic planning and policy, said his agency is expanding its online offerings to serve the public.

"If someone claims that our core mission is just warning the public of hazardous conditions, that's really impossible unless we forecast the weather all the time," Johnson said to the Post. "You don't just plug in your clock when you want to know what time it is."

fmi: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c109:s786

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