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House SS&T Approves Legislation for Commercial Weather Satellite Pilot Program-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Mar-2015
Updated: 20-May-2015 04:33 AM

UPDATE:  May 19, 2015:  The House passed H.R. 1561 on May 18, 2015 by voice vote under suspension of the rules.

ORIGINAL STORY, March 28, 2015: The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) committee approved a bill to improve weather research and forecasting on Thursday.   Although the bill does not focus specifically on weather satellites, it includes a pilot program to encourage the private sector to build and launch commercial systems to provide weather data that NOAA would purchase.

The Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act cleared the committee by voice vote on a bipartisan basis.  The bill, H.R. 1561, is co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR).

H.R. 1561 is a revised version of a bill that passed the House last year.  The previous bill (H.R. 2413) was sponsored by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who chairs the House SS&T Environment Subcommittee and spoke in favor of the revised bill during Thursday's markup.  He said he is "most proud of" the provision that creates a pilot program to encourage the private sector to launch instruments into space to provide data for the numerical models used to forecast weather.  He framed his argument in terms of mitigating against the risk of losing one of NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) or Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) spacecraft, calling them "huge, monolithic" satellites, the loss of which could result in gaps in the ability to provide data needed for weather forecasting. 

"If we can move to a day -- it's not going to happen overnight and I don't want to cannibalize JPSS or GOES ... -- but if we can move to a day where we change the business model where instead of building, owning, and operating huge, monolithic satellites ... I think this commercial approach ultimately will result in ... a lot a resiliency,"  Bridenstine said.   He called the legislation "a signal to private industry" to invest in these technologies because Congress wants to move to a future "where we are buying data from the private sector and not relying on huge, monolithic satellites that ultimately could challenge our security when it comes to severe weather events."

Bonamici, who is the Ranking Member of the Environment Subcommittee, said the bill is built on "extensive advice" from the weather community and bipartisan agreement on the committee. She characterized it as "even stronger" than the bill that passed the House last year.   She said this bill reflects a "more thoughtful process moving towards commercial satellites for weather data and includes a pilot program for NOAA to buy data from space-based commercial providers as proof-of-concept. The program is funded at a very reasonable level, $9 million dollars. The performance of this pilot [program] will inform our efforts on how to move toward the next generation of weather satellite systems."

Bonamici also made clear that she thought the bill could have been even better if the committee had followed "regular order" and held hearings and a subcommittee markup prior to full committee markup.  This bill was introduced on Wednesday (March 24) and marked up the next day, which is quite unusual.  Although hearings were held on a similar bill in the last Congress, Bonamici argued that "a lot has changed in the world of weather research and policies" since then and "there may be good ideas that we could have included ... if we'd taken a bit more time."   She stressed, however, that she nonetheless supports the bill.

Two amendments were adopted during the markup, but did not seem to affect the language regarding satellite data.  The text of the bill prior to markup is on the committee's website along with a webcast of the markup itself.


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