Weather bill raises a storm

Weather information is of utmost importance to voyagers. In the past decade we have seen a wide variety of weather products made available by the National Weather Service via its websites. According to some members of the maritime community, this abundance of weather data could change due to a recent Senate bill by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa).

Santorum’s bill, The National Weather Services Duties Act (S. 786), proposed in April this year, seeks to strictly define the weather service’s role providing weather products. Santorum proposed the bill to prevent NWS, a federal government agency, from competing with private weather services like the Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather, a member of the Commercial Weather Services Association. Some critics of the proposed legislation claim the bill will prevent NWS from providing anything other than emergency warnings of severe weather. Mike Sciulla, editor of the BoatU.S. magazine, summarized BoatU.S.’s position, “The bill is ill-conceived, poorly drafted legislation that could have a significantly negative effect on boating safety.”

In public statements, Santorum’s office insists the bill would not change consumers’ access to NWS websites or weather radio. The senator’s office did not respond to our requests for comment. Barry Meyers, executive vice president at AccuWeather, which supports the bill, says it is necessary to define NWS’s statutory role and prevent government competition with the private sector.

According to Santorum, the bill results from a change in policy by NOAA, the agency that oversees NWS. From 1991 to 2004, NOAA maintained a policy of noncompetition with private weather providers. In December 2004, NOAA changed that policy in light of the National Research Council’s 2003 study, Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services, and after a period of public comment. Recognizing that some NWS products could overlap with those from the private sector, NOAA stated it “will give due consideration” to the efforts of weather companies and “consider the effects of its decisions on the activities of these entities.”

In January 2005, CWSA released a statement that NOAA’s new policy was likely to “waste taxpayer money through expensive duplication.�VbCrLf According to Meyers, unfair competition from NWS has been a problem for some time. “They have worked over the past five years for commodities traders, giving traders tailored forecasts,�VbCrLf Meyers said. “And they have provided specialized forecasts to golf tournaments and auto races.�VbCrLf Meyers pointed out that specialized forecasts are the kind of services offered by AccuWeather and other members of CWSA.

Critics of S. 786 suggest the wording of the bill allows for a more restrictive approach than that stated by Santorum’s public comments. Opponents say the bill could be used to limit NWS to severe weather warnings only. Under section 2B, entitled “Competition with the private sector,�VbCrLf the open-ended nature of the directive has critics worried: “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.�VbCrLf Since just about any weather product could be provided by private weather companies, this might restrict NWS to severe weather warnings, with other data supplied by for-profit companies.

Supporters of the bill counter that the restriction on NWS private-sector competition will apply unless “the Secretary determines the private sector is unwilling or unable to provide such product or service.�VbCrLf Thus, if NWS has a new weather product it wishes to disseminate and if members of the CWSA decide not to offer such a product, then NWS could distribute it. Meyers points out that the decision would res t with the secretary of commerce not CWSA. “We don’t get to decide that,�VbCrLf Meyers said.

Private-sector weather companies do have a legitimate concern; the federal government should not be competing with private-sector weather products by providing specialized forecasts to commodities traders and golf tournaments. The wording of this bill, however, seems to favor the private sector. Interpreted by a pro-business secretary of commerce, the legislation could allow for the restriction of NWS weather products, reducing mariners’ access to weather data. This bill is ripe for a compromise rewrite that will address the concerns of both sides and give NWS clear guidance on moving forward.

At press time in late August, the bill was still on the docket of the Senate Commerce Committee.

By Ocean Navigator