By ERIC MINK
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
A powerful national politician says he wants to modernize the workings of the National Weather Service, yet he sponsors a bill that would toss out the agency's brand-new policy on data and information and reinstitute one formulated in 1991.
The politician says he wants the weather service to concentrate on its most important functions -- as his bill puts it, "the preparation and issuance of severe weather forecasts and warnings designed for the protection of life and property of the general public."
But another section of the bill requires that the weather service issue all its information "through a set of data portals designed for volume access by commercial providers" of weather information.
If you're a Midwesterner in tornado alley, a rancher in Idaho worried about a blizzard or a Florida property owner bracing for a hurricane, good luck hunting for a commercially optimized data portal in a storm.
In fact, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum's comically mistitled National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005 would shackle the agency to a pre-Internet existence and choke off the free flow of weather information to the American people. It essentially would transform the weather service into a subsidiary of private companies that take data collected at taxpayer expense and resell it for profit.
I keep thinking this proposed scam is actually a plot line rejected as too far-fetched for "Groundhog Day," Bill Murray's reality-warping 1993 comedy in which an obnoxious TV weathercaster is condemned to repeat the same 24-hour time period until he changes his ways. What, it's just a coincidence the movie is set in Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania?
No coincidence at all, actually. By tromping on the public interest, Santorum's bill would protect the private interests of the dozen or so commercial weather companies headquartered in Pennsylvania. (One of them is AccuWeather Inc., which sells weather information and graphics to thousands of TV and newspaper clients, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)
"This is about job retention in Pennsylvania," Santorum spokeswoman Chrissy Shott told the Associated Press soon after her boss introduced the bill earlier this spring.
The corporate knickers of AccuWeather and its ilk began twisting in December when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- the parent agency of the weather service -- announced a new policy on providing information to the public.
The old policy, in place since 1991, banned the weather service from offering any services already being provided by private businesses or that they might someday decide to offer, a ridiculously broad prohibition. The new policy -- taking note of the communications revolution of the last couple of decades -- rejects an outright ban as far too rigid. NOAA is still obliged, though, to "give due consideration" to what the private sector is doing before the weather service modifies its own distribution of material.
I don't begrudge commercial weather companies making piles of cash off the information they get from our National Weather Service, but I think they ought to earn it. Indeed, that's what I assume they've been doing for their paying customers: adding value to the data by making it easily accessible, vividly presented, conveniently organized and astutely analyzed.
If, on the other hand, their weather products don't really have much added value -- if what they've been doing is mostly just passing along what they get from the weather service -- then they have good reason to worry. Their customers may well wise up, as the weather service makes its taxpayer-funded information more convenient to get and easier to understand.
In an interview last month with the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, Santorum complained that, with the weather service putting out more information to the public, "It's not an easy prospect for a business to attract advertisers, subscribers or investors. ..."
Running a business is never easy, but the commercial weather companies claim to be selling a product more valuable than what the weather service offers. If they're not, it's their fault, not the weather service's.
The December information-policy changes at NOAA and the weather service grew out of recommendations developed by the National Academy of Science's National Research Council, which has been supplying scientific and technological advice to government agencies for nearly 90 years. Public comments on the proposed changes overwhelmingly favored the NRC's recommendation to scrap the 1991 policy.
In explaining the new policy, NOAA noted that its fundamental mission includes "providing open and unrestricted access to publicly funded observations, analyses, model results, forecasts and related information products. ..."
If Santorum and his corporate constituents in Pennsylvania have a problem with that, let them launch their own system of satellites and create their own interconnected national radar network. The ones they're using now are ours.
X Eric Mink is commentary editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.