Proposed Rise for Oceans' Agency Budget as Satellite Costs Mount

Although 2012 budget documents for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) are still being vetted by the Department of Commerce and the White House, the big picture has emerged: NOAA's expensive array of environmental satellite systems are hoping to receive the lion's share of the president's generous increase for the agency. But getting that requested hike through Congress won't be easy.

The NOAA request is $5.5 billion, a 16% increase over its current FY 2010 spending level. (Congress has yet to pass a 2011 budget.) A big change is a structural reorganization of the department with the creation of the National Climate Service as a full line office. Meant to serve like the National Weather Service or the National Ocean Service, the new office hopes to provide climate information that industry, government, and the public will find useful. The office will take over data and information management archive activities from the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, which has been renamed the National Environmental Satellite Service.

Scientists are enthusiastic about the president's $5 million proposal to expand coastal radar for surface current monitoring through the Integrated Ocean Observing System. That emphasis "sends a clear signal of the importance of regional operators to collect, distribute, and synthesize ocean observations," said Eric Terrill, director of the Coastal Observing Research and Development Center at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, in a statement. This would be the first increase for the program since it moved from a program dependent on earmarks to one mostly driven by competitive grants.

But the biggest change to NOAA's budget would be to its equipment in space, not in the water Last year, the Administration announced that it planned to split the troubled NPOESS satellite program into two parts, one run by NASA and NOAA, called JPSS, and another run by the Pentagon, called DWSS. The 2012 budget contains an additional $688 million for JPSS; a key launch, of a preparatory mission called NPP, is set to occur in October after years of delays. The budget of its satellite branch would grow by an additional $40 million above the 2010 level because of work on other proposed satellites.

Getting that money will be a tall order, however. Last week, House of Representatives appropriators proposed lopping $1.2 billion off NOAA's current budget as part of $62 billion in reductions across the federal government for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year. Such a cut, if enacted, would put particular pressure on NOAA's effort to pay for its fleet of satellites.