Rough Sailing for Plan to Move NOAA?

The Obama Administration's proposal to move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from the Commerce Department to the Interior Department is drawing mixed reactions from former senior staff, members of Congress, and outside groups. And there is broad agreement that the plan will face serious opposition in Congress.

Few details of the proposed move have been released. But Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said in a conference call today that "the whole of NOAA" would move to the Interior Department. "How we appropriately integrate so that 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."

The plan "makes a lot of sense," says James Baker, who served as NOAA administrator from 1993 to 2001 under President Bill Clinton. But lawmakers who currently oversee the agency's budget "could be a stumbling block if they feel they are losing control," he says—noting that such problems helped sink several past efforts to move the agency. Baker is now director of the Global Carbon Measurement Program of the Clinton Foundation.

Some members of Congress, however, aren't convinced. NOAA would be "buried" in the Interior Department, which is "already overburdened," Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) said in a statement to Alaska Public Radio.

Other key lawmakers did not address the NOAA proposal directly, but did say they would be giving the plan a serious look. "I hope this announcement represents the beginning of a sincere and dedicated effort to enact meaningful reforms," said Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), chair of the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "We will be taking a hard look at the details of this plan and listening carefully to the concerns of those impacted," promised Senator John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-WV), who chairs the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce, and Transportation.

Many outside observers, however, predicted it will encounter rough sailing. "This is a very interesting proposal but I don't think it is going to go very far," says Scott Rayder, who served as NOAA chief of staff during the George W. Bush Administration and is now an executive with ITT Exelis Geospatial Systems in Herndon, Virginia.

Many parts of NOAA would fit well within Interior, he says. NOAA's climate and Earth-observing operations would dovetail nicely with Interior's Geological Survey, for instance. And NOAA's fisheries and endangered species programs already loosely cooperate with similar operations run by Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service. Both institutions also undertake a mix of scientific research and regulation, he notes. "But one concern is how would these cultures fit together?" Rayder says. "They have different ways of doing business."

Rayder and others also wonder whether the Senate and House appropriations committees that currently oversee NOAA's budget—$4.9 billion this fiscal year—will be willing to hand over that chunk of money to the committees that oversee Interior's budget. "The appropriators almost never want to have jurisdiction taken away," says Rayder. The shift would also increase Interior's $11.4 billion budget by nearly 40%. It would also make NOAA the department's largest single agency, a position it also holds in Commerce.

Several environmental groups, meanwhile, say this is the wrong time to shake things up. "We are extremely troubled by the proposal," Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement. "This is not merely some technical, bureaucratic shift. The move could erode the capabilities and mute the voice of the government's primary agency for protecting our oceans and the ecosystems and economies that depend on them."

"Reorganization for NOAA at this time could potentially diminish or distract from the agency's vital mission," Emily Woglom, director of government relations for the Ocean Conservancy in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. The group "is concerned about the unintended consequences a rapid reorganization of NOAA could have for the ocean. … We need to see a lot more details because the full implications of this decision are unknown and could be far-reaching." One issue, the group says, is that moving NOAA could require Congress to revise a number of conservation laws that give NOAA certain powers—potentially inviting unwanted changes.

A former top NOAA fisheries regulator, however, says where NOAA is located is less important than whether Congress and the White House gives it the funds and political support it needs to do an expanding job. "The place that NOAA sits doesn't matter; what matters is that its operations need to be coherent and functioning," says Andrew Rosenberg, a former head of NOAA's marine fisheries program and now chief scientist and senior vice president for science at Conservation International in Arlington, Virginia. There are "advantages and disadvantages wherever you put it," he says.

Rosenberg should know. In 2003, he was the member of the Pew Ocean Commission, a private blue-ribbon panel which reviewed various ways of reorganizing NOAA, including past attempts. "I think we came up with 42 different efforts since 1970," he says—none of which ended taking hold. "That doesn't mean it can't happen, but there is a ways to go."