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Update on the National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 8:42 PM GMT on June 20, 2005

From the Wichita, KS Eagle:

In several earlier blogs, I discussed that it may soon be illegal for the National Weather Service to issue non-severe weather forecasts under the provisions of the National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005, Senate Bill S.786, introduced April 14 by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. The bill's key provision (Section 2b) states that the National Weather Service cannot provide "a product or service...that is or could be provided by the private sector", with the exception of severe weather forecasts and warnings needed to protect life and property. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez is given sole authority on how to interpret what NWS products and services should be restricted.

Since that discussion, the outcry against this piece of legislation has been widespread; a search for "Santorum National Weather Service" at http://news.google.com reveals a large number of opinion pieces in various news reports, nearly all of them unfavorable to the bill. In particular, many criticized the timing of Santorum's release of the bill, which came 2 days after he received a $2000 donation from Joel Myers, the CEO of Accuweather, at a fundraiser. "I don't think there's any coincidence between the two," Santorum said. "It's just that I happened to have a fundraiser in the town he was in."

Sen. Santorum has been defending the legislation in a number of radio spots broadcast in Pennsylvania the past two months, but has taken substantial criticism in Pennsylvania for the bill. This may be part of the reason that June 2005 polls show him running 15 points behind in his 2006 election campaign against Democratic challenger Robert P. Casey, Jr. Two powerful unions, the National Weather Service Employee's Union and the Aircraft Owner's and Pilot Association, have been active in lobbying against the bill.

So what is likely to happen to the National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005? The bill is still sitting in the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and has no co-sponsor in the Senate. The unpopularity of the bill makes it unlikely that the Committe will act upon the bill anytime soon. The most likely way the bill would make it into law is if Sen. Santorum manages to sneak the bill in as an amendment or rider to some other important piece of legislation. Given that he is the number three man in the Senate leadership, this is a distinct possibility. I will keep you all informed on the situtation and let you know if this happens, when your emails, faxes, and phone calls to oppose the bill will be needed.

It is interesting to note that Congress is working on wording in current legislation to "urge" (but not require) the NWS to not compete with the private sector. The House Science, State, Justice, Commerce and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill for 2006 includes the following language:

"The Committee urges the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service to take maximum advantage of capabilities and services that already exist in the commercial sector to eliminate duplication and maximize the accomplish of the core mission of the National Weather Service."

This is the same language that was adopted by both the House and Senate as part of the report to the 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Bill last November, and seems like a far more reasonable way to foster non-competition between the NWS and the private sector than Sen. Santorum's bill.

One other note--the June 2005 issue of Business 2.0 magazine has an interesting 4-page article about Accuweather titled, "Stormy Weather." The article criticizes Accuweather for its adverserial relationship with the NWS: "And yet, when you ask Myers [Accuweather CEO] to assess the competetive landscape, he still can't seem to focus on the Weather Channel, the upstart company that has taken him to the cleaners. 'Our main competition,' he says, without a hint of irony, 'is the National Weather Service.' " Dr. Myers should heed this advice, and stop wasting everyone's time trying to push legislation to restrict the flow of National Weather Service information. The NWS works pretty well, and the taxpayers are mostly happy with it--so let's leave it alone.

Dr. Jeff Masters

How to oppose The National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005. The National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005 is currently before the Senate Commerce Committee, and will have to make it out of there before the full Senate votes on it. The time to kill this bill is now! Write your Senator if he or she is on the Senate Commerce Committee: http://commerce.senate.gov/about/membership.html


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

Let's keep the pressure on all parties, so this doesn't get tacked onto some must have bill as a rider...

Remember the old addage that, "nothing is safe while congress is in session..."

Even the die hard privatization folks are joking about how cheap Santorum could be bought.

Here in the "Plywood State" we've come to really appreciate the NWS...
This issue has come up several times since the early 1990's -- Similar proposed legislation in the late 1990s lobbied for by AccuWeather was never enacted. Let me give you an example for the potential impact for an industry I have worked in for 30 years - the major Airlines.

To placate the commercials, NOAA sponsored the NRC study to address the growing issues between the NWS, the University Research centers, the FAA (to some degree) and the private vendors. The result was the Fair Weather" report, published by the National Research Council (NRC) in 2003. http://www.nap.edu/books/0309087465/html/

The report summarizes a multi-year study of the problem and recommendations made by the study group. To sum up the recommendations keep things the way they are, but there needs to be more cooperation between the two sectors.

The commercial sector was not happy with the report, and the AMS was then tasked with developing some means of "cooperation". The AMS set up a committee early in 2004 to study the Fair Weather report and make recommendations. This committee just sent its final report to the AMS, and you can read about it on the AMS web site, but as with the original report, there are recommendations for AMS to serve as the forum for public/private cooperation, but nothing about changing the law.

If you read "Fair Weather", and listen to some of the commercial folks talk, what they want is free access to all NWS data (observational and modeling), and an iron-clad guarantee that they have unique rights to the development and sale of "value added" products derived from that data. What does this mean to the
users such as the Airlines etc ? - they get to pay twice for met data! Once as taxpayers, and then as customers. For example, one of the real sore points with the commercial side is the ADDS

NWS,FSL, NCAR, universities, etc., the goal of these projects is to take raw data and convert it into a value added product or system. If the commercial folks have their way, none of this would be lawful. So, you would have a situation in which the commercial industry has complete control over what can or cannot be done in terms of product development. Even if a customer had a valid requirement for a product such as an automated turbulence graphic, and the private sector saw no commercial value in the product, the customer is out of luck. Added to that kind of control, do we think that the commercial side will have the kind of technical expertise and talent available at an NCAR or FSL? I doubt it.

When you begin to think about product development in some detail, issues like satellite and radar imagery become key issues to the airline industry. Are these images "raw data" or value added? Is model output raw data or value added? The list goes on and on. If this law was enacted, the lawyers would have a field day litigating all kinds of products.

Finally, these are a couple of the more bizarre issues raised by the commercial vendors in the course of the "Fair Weather" study: They claim that color radar was invented by the commercial industry! Likewise, color weather charts. The list goes on and on about their accomplishments, and how the NWS has "pirated" these ideas, and has given no credit (either monetary or non-monetary) to the original inventors!

The public/private weather issue has been debated for at least 10-15 years, and the Fair Weather study was completed by the NRC to end that debate. Lets not start it all over again. I think the bottom line recommendation on this issue, is that Congress should follow the recommendations made in the NRC Fair Weather study no change in the law, but more cooperation between the public and private sectors.


The original quip (uttered by New York Judge Gideon Tucker in 1866) is somewhat stronger:

"No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session."

I agree it's a very apt distillation of the warning Jeff was trying to give us.
I read in Dr. Jeff Masters Blog on wunderground.com that there is a bill that is trying to passed to restrict much of what the NWS does.
I have not done much research as of yet, but I have read that the push is being made, mostly by accuweather.com. This is ridiculous. The NWS has been an important part of weather forecasting and emergency information for as long as I can remember. To put a hault to everything that has been and will be accomplished by them is absurd. I understand the private industry needing to make a buck but if the "demand" for it was there it would work already. I am not sure what your views on this bill are, but I hope that you do everything in your power to put a stop to it being enacted. This is a bill which would be easily passed as a rider with some other bill. Please do not allow this to happen. The NWS is doing what the taxpayers need it to do. It is an important venue for the safety and protection of life and property of YOUR constituents.
I wrote my Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison (who sites on the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation committee), regarding S. 786. The response I received back was not encouraging in the least. She seems to be in favor of the bill. Here is an excerpt from her letter...

In December 2004, NOAA, the parent agency of NWS, repealed its 1991 non-competition and non-duplication policy, which delineated the respective roles of the NWS and the commercial weather industry and stated the intention of NWS not to provide products or services that were or could be provided by the commercial weather industry. The new NOAA policy promises only to "give due consideration" to the abilities of the private sector entities. S. 786 seeks to restore the NWS non-competition policy, while providing NWS with unfettered freedom to carry out its critical role of preparing and issuing severe weather warnings and forecasts.

While I agree NWS plays a vital role in monitoring weather to protect citizens and provide information helpful to individuals and business, I also believe increased market competition leads to greater industry performance. As I continue to monitor this issue, you may be certain I will keep your views in mind.

I wrote VA Sen. George Allen about this very issue when I first heard about it. (At the time I was in between moves, and took advantage of the situation to write to both the Senators from Maryland and Virginia.)

Sen. Sarbanes from Maryland responded almost immediately, while Sen. Allen waited a while to respond.

He says:

While I recognize the importance of ensuring private-sector competition, I also believe it is important to ensure the safety and security of the public. I stand with my colleagues and the President in an effort to reduce bureaucratic redundancies; however, I continue to believe that legislative decisions, such as this, must be made in the best interest of the American taxpayer. As I continue to review this legislation and weigh its possible effects on our local communities, please be assured that should it come before me on the Senate floor, I will certainly keep your thoughtful comments in mind.

Seems that he doesn't realize that the bill is in a committee that he is on (along with a previous commenter's own Sen. Hutchinson), though I do find it favorable that he doesn't totally commit to the passage of the bill.
Actually, I was somewhat surprised to get a response from Sen. Hutchison. For reference, it took about a 1.5 months. At least she seems to know something about the bill. Unfortunately, her response has quite a pro-Santorum spin to it. I also wrote Senator Dorgan from ND. I pay some business taxes there, and grew up there, but since I don't live there anymore, I don't expect to get a response from him.

It seems to me that S. 786 fits the Bush Administration's privatiziation philosophy quite well, and that this bill has much more "silent" support among the Republicans on the CST committee than most of us might think. Probably the best chance for stopping S. 786 will be to show Senators from rural states that S. 786 will be particularly detrimental to their constituents.
Has anybody asked a question of the slant to "retroactive removal of act of god provisions in weather forecast contracts" to all the companies? I bet if they weren't allowed to claim "act of god" exemptions on forecasts as they can now, this bill would die instantly.

That would price me out of the industry as a forecaster with the wages as they are, but that would be the only way I see in realistically stopping it.

Let the lawyers clean out the companies that bought the bill, and it would be replealed instantly due to a liability/ malpractice insurance premium crisis that would dwarf what is being faced by medical doctors.

anybody else's thoughts?
I also wrote to Senator George Allen of Virginia and got the following reply below. I plan to write him again via his web site (a reply to this e-mail bounced), I will be sure to inform him that the bill is in his committee.

"Thank you for contacting me regarding proposed changes to the National Weather Service (NWS). I appreciate your concerns and value the opportunity to respond.

"As you may be aware, the National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005, S. 786, was recently introduced in the Senate. This legislation is designed to redefine the role and purpose of NWS to better reflect our nations needs in the 21st century. Among the changes, the most significant change would be the prohibition of NWS of providing or assisting entities with products or services that are not directly related to the preparation or issuance of sever weather forecasts and warnings. This legislation, as I understand, is intended to focus the mission of NWS to severe weather services and allow the private sector to provide non-severe weather services.

"While I recognize the importance of ensuring private-sector competition, I also believe it is important to ensure the safety and security of the public. I stand with my colleagues and the President in an effort to reduce bureaucratic redundancies; however, I continue to believe that legislative decisions, such as this, must be made in the best interest of the American taxpayer. As I continue to review this legislation and weigh its possible effects on our local communities, please be assured that should it come before me on the Senate floor, I will certainly keep your thoughtful comments in mind.

"Once again, I appreciate you alerting me to this matter and hope you will not hesitate to contact me again about issues important to you. If you would like to receive an e-mail newsletter about my initiatives to improve America, please sign up on my website (). It is an honor to serve you in the United States Senate, and I look forward to working with you to make Virginia and America a better place to live, learn, work and raise a family.

"With warm regards, I remain
Senator George Allen"
10. Gael
What is the purpose of government "of the people, by the people, for the people"? Is it not so that all of us together can provide services that few of us could afford to buy individually? If a service is necessary but will not produce a profit, the private sector will not provide it. Who better to provide it than all of us acting together in the form of our representative government? In my view, the forecasts of the NWS are the most valuable service of any provided by the federal government in terms of the number of citizens positively impacted on a daily basis.