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Obama's Call to Move NOAA Could Undermine Ocean Scientists' Independence

Frances Beinecke

Posted January 15, 2012 in Reviving the World's Oceans, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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President Obama has announced a plan to move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration out of the Commerce Department and into the Department of the Interior. While streamlining government to better serve the American people is a worthy undertaking, this decision could significantly undermine efforts to safeguard our oceans and marine life.

NOAA is the most important voice America has on the state of our oceans. It is also one of our best resources for understanding the changing atmosphere and the increase in severe storm events. Its scientific expertise and data-driven decisions are world renowned.

More than ever before, our oceans need thoughtful, science-based management. Depleted fisheries, growing acidification of ocean waters from carbon pollution, and expanded drilling in ever-more extreme environments are just some of the issues nation has to tackle. Now is the time for our oceans experts to apply their skills, not lose their independence.

Housing NOAA within a department whose focus on the oceans is almost entirely extractive (permitting offshore oil drilling and exploration, for example) could erode the capability and mute the voices of the government’s chief oceans experts.

I served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, and one year ago we delivered our findings about what caused the deadly spill and how America could avoid another oil disaster.

In our report, we underscored the critical importance of having strong and independent scientific and environmental input into offshore drilling decisions and, to that end, recommended a strengthened role for NOAA in the decision-making process.

Moving NOAA into the Department of the Interior is not a recipe for strengthening NOAA or ensuring its independence.

The way the Interior Department has been dealing with oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean is a case in point. Our commission concluded that the government cannot make thoughtful decisions about the future of drilling in the Arctic Ocean until we close two critical gaps: the gap in our scientific understanding of the Arctic ecosystem and the gap in our ability to respond to spills in that forbidding landscape.

NOAA has expressed concerns about Arctic drilling in the past, it should be helping to fill the research gap. But what will its role be if it gets folded into a department that didn’t place value on conducting that scientific review before it allowed drilling?

We understand the president’s interest in creating a more nimble, coherent entity for economic policy; but that can be done without sacrificing the scientific and environmental strengths of NOAA, and the independent perspectives it brings to America’s ocean riches.

 

 

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Comments

Harold JohnsonJan 15 2012 01:36 PM

NOAA now sits in a Dept whose goal is to help US corps sell more & more stuff. The result has been plastic oceans and an agency hamstrung in speaking out by corporate interests. I welcome the move to the same Department that represents our National Parks.

Brian CochranJan 15 2012 04:22 PM

While I appreciate Beinecke's concern for issues with mining and government oversight of mining, her argument fails to persuade. Painting the Interior Department as a mining and exploration operation overlooks a much larger palette of science- and natural resource management-driven agencies within. Interior has a lot of agencies and scientists that protect our environment in addition to their legal requirements to let others destroy it. In fact a quick look at the Commerce agency line-up quickly shows NOAA as the odd duck, as the rest of the Department's bureaus are business, statistics, standards of people resources; not natural resources. Also, I have to trust an Interior Secretary over a Commerce Secretary any day just on sheer vocabulary, as a jobs and economics will be the primary bottom line for a Commerce Secretary, not ocean health.

The biggest benefit of this move will be the Endangered Species Act (ESA) which is enforced by US Fish and Wildlife Service (Interior) for terrestrial species and NOAA (Commerce) for ocean/ocean-going species (i.e. salmon). Now we can have scientists under one Secretary, with options open to possible move ESA-roles to one agency or at least standardize management.

That said, I agree mining and exploration laws do need overhauled. Agencies still need tireless scientists and adequate budgets to enforce their regulations. But what concerns me the most are those laws that tie NOAA to Commerce which will need to be overhauled as a result of this move. Will those legal updates weaken, strengthen or remove the governmental responsibilities that protect natural resources? I haven't heard anything about that but welcome investigation.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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