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. "How we appropriately integrate that so we're achieving efficiency and making sure that we are achieving the mission of NOAA in the context of the Interior Department will be worked out as part of the details of the specific proposal."
President Obama took a lighter tone when he explained the rationale for the proposed switch.
A tale of salmon, Nixon and the Vietnam War
"As it turns out, the Interior Department is in charge of salmon in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in salt water," he said. "If you're wondering what the genesis of this was, apparently, it had something to do with President Nixon being unhappy with his Interior secretary for criticizing him about the Vietnam War. And so he decided not to put NOAA in what would have been a more sensible place."
Initial reaction to the plan was mixed, although several experts noted that the idea of moving NOAA out of Commerce is an old one. The oceans agency has often been viewed as an odd fit within the department, where its $4.9 billion purse accounts for roughly 60 percent of the total budget.
"These ideas have been around for a while. It's been discussed," said Andrew Rosenberg, chief scientist for Conservation International and a professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire -- and a former deputy director of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service. "It's certainly a reasonable thing to consider. The important part is not where NOAA sits, but that its functions and its coherence be strengthened."
Mark Schaefer, a former deputy assistant secretary of Interior who served as acting director of the U.S. Geological Survey, said the move could benefit climate research.
"It makes sense to be looking at issues from a more comprehensive perspective, and to link USGS's traditional work related to water, geology and biology with NOAA's oceans and atmospheric and biological work," he said. "Carbon cycles don't know artificial agency boundaries."
Schaefer and former Clinton-era NOAA chief D. James Baker are part of a group of former government officials who have proposed spinning USGS and NOAA off into a new Earth science agency -- an idea they published in the journal Science in 2009.
Baker called Obama's plan to shift NOAA into Interior "a really good idea," but identified potential stumbling blocks -- such as how to meld NOAA's weather service and satellites into a department that does not have similar responsibilities to deliver high-quality, real-time data.
"NOAA requires a fairly large budget just to manage those operational activities, the National Weather Service and the satellites," Baker said. "When you add that into the Interior Department, it becomes a very different agency."
Would NOAA's climate mission escape damage?
Others who keep a close eye on NOAA said they were concerned that pushing a reorganization now would shine an unwanted spotlight on the agency, which 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.
"In the ideal world, if 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?"
And some experts say putting NOAA into Interior would just create an awkward match.
"If NOAA was just salmon, it would be a perfect fit, but NOAA is complex -- like a holding agency for anything that has to do with the atmosphere or oceans," said Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization. "Unless they've figured out some brilliant matrix management approach to this, I just don't know how it's going to fit in Interior."
There is some historical precedent for the move, according to James Fleming, a historian of science and professor at Colby College.
"NOAA came from the convergence of a bunch of agencies in a handful of departments," said Fleming, including the Interior Department, the Navy, the National Science Foundation and the Agriculture Department. But the largest contribution, in terms of personnel and budget, came from Commerce, in the form of the Environmental Science Services Agency, created by President Kennedy.
Fleming also gave Obama "partial credit" for his reference Friday to the old Washington saw about Nixon and NOAA's origins.
While Nixon had the final say, and his beef with then-Interior Secretary Wally Hickel's views on the Vietnam War is well-known, horse trading among lower-level bureaucrats planning out the new agency helped lay the groundwork for Nixon's decision, Fleming said.
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.
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