Ex-Bush Official Lautenbacher Joins AccuWeather
The Bush administration's longtime point person on weather and ocean issues, Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., has joined the board of directors at AccuWeather Inc., one of the most prominent players in the private weather forecasting sector. The move is noteworthy in part because it comes three years after AccuWeather caused a storm of its own when it became associated with congressional legislation that may have privatized much of the National Weather Service, the organization Lautenbacher oversaw as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Keep reading for more on AccuWeather's eye-opening addition...
In an interview with Capital Weather Gang last week, AccuWeather CEO Barry Lee Myers said Lautenbacher will have a variety of duties on the company's board, and will be "potentially more active" than board members tend to be at other companies.
"The admiral's experience, certainly on a worldwide scale, is especially relevant at this particular time," Myers said, pointing to efforts to improve worldwide weather and climate data gathering and information sharing. While in government, Lautenbacher spearheaded development of a global environmental data gathering system, whose moniker as the "Global Earth Observation System of Systems," or GEOSS, is a mouthful even among Washington's acronym-heavy standards.
While the board appointment has not stirred up any allegations of impropriety, the combative history between the Weather Service and AccuWeather is leading some to question the move. "At least it should raise questions in people's minds, and it does in mine," said Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas), who serves as the chairman of the House Science Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment. "You wonder whether there is any quid pro quo."
The main controversy between AccuWeather and the Weather Service stems from a 2005 Senate bill, which was introduced by then-Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, that would have clarified the roles of the federal weather agency and the many private weather forecasting firms in a way that could have limited the government's ability to issue routine forecasts and other products to the public at no additional cost.
When Santorum's bill was introduced, commercial weather vendors said they were seeking only to ensure that the Weather Service did not expand their role in a way that would encroach on their businesses, but critics such as the National Weather Service Employees Union saw the bill as an attempt to prohibit the taxpayer-funded agency from doing anything more than gathering data.
AccuWeather, which is based in State College, Pennsylvania, and whose co-founder and former CEO donated to Santorum's ultimately unsuccessful reelection campaign two days before the bill was introduced, was widely viewed as the driving force behind the legislation, which never made it to the Senate floor.
Myers denied that AccuWeather was a key player on the Santorum bill. "I don't think we were any more connected to that than we were to any other issues floating around. Certainly being from Pennsylvania there was a natural connection made," he said.
Lautenbacher acknowledged friction in the past relationship, but said it resulted from communications issues between the government and the private sector. "There is a huge need to put aside any ideas for competition that could be to the detriment of providing value for society." Speaking as a private citizen, Lautenbacher said he doesn't think the past tensions are an issue now.
"I don't think there is an issue from the government's side at this point," he said.
However, Lampson, who has played a key role in oversight of Lautenbacher's former agency, said Lautenbacher was known among his staff as being supportive of privatization.
Lampson opposes privatizing the Weather Service, arguing that introducing a profit motive into the dissemination of life-saving information would be to the detriment of public safety. "Anything to me that dramatically takes away from the ability of the public agency to do the job very, very well I think is the wrong way to go," Lampson said.
Lampson, who leaves office just after the New Year following his reelection defeat in November, is among several candidates being mentioned as the next potential leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under President-elect Obama.
Roger Pielke Jr., a science policy scholar at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the board appointment should be seen in the larger context of the public/private sector relationship on weather services. "It is true that AccuWeather has a history of conflict with the NWS, so perhaps this represents an effort on their part to be a little bit more astute in their inside the beltway dealings," Pielke said.
"There will always be tensions between the Weather Service and the private sector. It is a complex relationship that has them always overlapping and closely related."
| December 18, 2008; 10:00 AM ET
Categories: Freedman, Government, Media, News & Notes
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