Trump’s pick for NOAA chief causes a storm

 In Politics

Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty Images

Barry Myers would join a roster of other business leaders whom President Donald Trump has installed atop his agencies. | Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty Images

As a top executive at AccuWeather, Barry Myers has pushed for limits on the kinds of products that the National Weather Service offers to the public, saying they offered unfair competition to his industry.

Now, President Donald Trump’s nomination of Myers to lead the weather service’s parent agency could allow him to make those kinds of restrictions mandatory — to the benefit of his family-run forecasting company.

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The AccuWeather CEO’s nomination to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is stirring criticism from people who worry he would hobble the weather service, which provoked an industry backlash more than a decade ago by making hour-by-hour forecasts, cellphone alerts and other consumer-friendly data widely available online. A bill that Myers supported 12 years ago, sponsored by then-Sen. Rick Santorum, would have prohibited the agency from competing with private providers in most circumstances.

Myers, who has served as a NOAA adviser, has more recently spoken of cooperation with the agency, including industry’s advocacy for Congress to fund its budget. But his critics expressed misgivings nonetheless.

“I fear that he’ll do irreparable harm to an agency whose primary mission is to save lives,” said Daniel Sobien, the president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, which strongly opposes Myers’ nomination. “There seems to be a huge conflict of interest considering his business background and belief system.”

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) agreed, calling Myers a “questionable” choice.

“As the CEO of AccuWeather, Barry Myers views NOAA as a direct competitor that provides high-quality forecasts for free,” Schatz said in a statement Thursday. He added that “Mr. Myers will have to work very hard to persuade me that he will run NOAA for the public good.”

Myers’ defenders say they hope he’ll use his long experience running a major weather enterprise to modernize NOAA, which also oversees fisheries, marine sanctuaries, endangered species, climate research, satellite data and its own uniformed officer corps.

“In past decade, AccuWeather has embraced ‘Big Data’ and become an advertising & digital innovation behemoth under Myers’ leadership,” wrote Ryan Maue, the chief operations officer at the website Weather.us, in a post on Twitter. Maue separately told POLITICO: “I expect Myers to bring that same vision to NOAA and enhance collaboration with the private sector especially in the role of space-based remote sensing and satellites.”

Myers did not return a call to his office Thursday, and a lobbyist who works with AccuWeather did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Myers, whose brother Joel founded AccuWeather in 1962, would join a roster of other business leaders whom Trump has installed atop his agencies — many of them bringing considerable potential conflicts of interest to the job. He has degrees in law and business, not the science and math degrees that Bush’s and President Barack Obama’s NOAA chiefs had.

Richard Painter, who served as the top ethics official for President George W. Bush, said Myers can probably meet the legal requirements to separate himself from his business. But, he added: “The appearances are awful. He should recuse from any matter that could have a financial impact on the company. And he should sell the stock.”

Myers indeed “will be liquidating all of his private sector holdings,” said a spokesman for NOAA’s parent agency, the Commerce Department, adding that he’ll “be subject to the same ethics and recusal requirements as any federal official.”

The spokesman also rejected suggestions that Myers would clamp down on the weather service’s public offerings. He said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who chose Myers for the job, “sees the provision of timely, accurate data to the public as one of the Department’s core missions. This includes weather data provided by the NWS, so there is no risk that Myers will restrict NWS provision of data to the public.”

“Myers has also been a strong proponent of free and open weather data to the public,” the spokesman added.

But in 2005, Myers supported Santorum’s widely panned bill, which would have prohibited the weather service from offering a product or service “that is or could be provided by the private sector” — a provision that would have benefited companies like AccuWeather.

The bill made some exceptions, including information needed to protect life and property, but weather entrepreneurs, hobbyists, airline pilots and open-government advocates said it would have choked off a wealth of data that the National Weather Service had begun making widely available. The legislation would have countered a 2004 policy change by the Bush administration that had eased restrictions on the weather service’s ability to offer new products and services.

“It is not an easy prospect for a business to attract advertisers, subscribers, or investors when the government is providing similar products and services for free,” Santorum said when introducing his bill. Critics, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), noted that taxpayers had already paid for the weather service’s data.

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