Trump nominates NOAA head staunchly opposed by agency employees

Trump selects CEO with no science background who wants to privatize weather data.

AccuWeather CEO and new NOAA administrator nominee Barry Myers. CREDIT" Diane Bondareff/AP Images for AccuWeather)
AccuWeather CEO and new NOAA administrator nominee Barry Myers. CREDIT" Diane Bondareff/AP Images for AccuWeather)

It is exceedingly rare for a federal agency’s workers union to formally oppose a nominee to lead their agency — especially before the nomination is even official. It’s even more rare for the nomination to go forward anyway.

But that’s what happened Wednesday, when President Donald Trump nominated Barry Myers, CEO of weather forecasting company AccuWeather, to serve as administration of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Myers has no scientific background and has lobbied to privatize public weather information.

That’s why, months before the nomination became official, the National Weather Service Employees Organization sent a letter opposing Myers to Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the chair and ranking member of the Senate committee that will hold Myers’ confirmation hearings.

“As this position has traditionally been filled by a pre-eminent scientist, and by that standard alone, Mr. Myers is wholly unqualified for the job,” the letter says. “In addition to his lack of scientific qualifications and his absence of any background in oceans, research, fisheries, environmental satellites, which constitute a majority of NOAA’s programs and budget, Mr. Myers’ nomination would present a host of conflicts of interests.”

It was first time the organization had sent a letter of that kind, said Richard Hirn, a lawyer who signed it on behalf of the union.

The union went so far as to say that Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet, who was subsequently nominated for the agency’s no. 2 position, would be a suitable choice. Gallaudet has a PhD in Oceanography from the Scripps Institution and led the Naval Meteorology and Oceanographic Command.

But in the Trump administration, it’s better to be a CEO than an expert. After the nomination was announced, employees were “pretty demoralized,” union president Dan Sobien told ThinkProgress.

“It seems like a very odd appointment. Under normal times it would seem like a very odd appointment, I don’t know if it is now,” he said. 

It’s not just that Myers doesn’t have any background in much of the work that NOAA does. The way that he thinks of the agency on the one area he does know — meteorological business — is at odds with the agency’s “fundamental policy.” To whit, Myers wants to make NOAA’s weather data private.

At the behest of Myers, the letter alleges, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) introduced legislation in 2005 that would have prohibited NWS “from providing any product or service that ‘is or could be provided by’ a private sector weather company (such as AccuWeather), other than severe weather warnings.” Only commercial weather information providers — again, such as AccuWeather — would have been able to access NOAA’s weather information. AccuWeather executives, including Myers and his brother, gave Santorum’s campaign $40,000, including a $2,000 donation just days before he introduced the legislation.

Nelson, who now is the ranking member on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, blocked Santorum’s 2005 bill, his office said in an email. He reiterated his commitment to protecting NOAA’s weather services for the public.

“We’ve had ten hurricanes in ten weeks, I want to make absolutely sure any NOAA administrator will put the public first in delivering freely available weather forecasts,” Nelson said. “We can’t afford to have someone in this position that might be tempted to feather their own nest by privatizing the National Weather Service.”

NOAA’s weather services are funded by taxpayers for the public good. Under Myers’ idea, those services would have continued — but only to provide data he and others like him could then sell back to the public. But there are other concerns, too.

Myers’ brother, who founded AccuWeather, now also owns a weather-based hedge fund, Weather Prophets. In 2005, he told Investment News that his company could profit by knowing that the NWS was about to upgrade a storm from Category 3 to Category 4.

“It’s a little disturbing to then put his brother in charge of the agency that does make that decision, Sobien said. “Will decisions be made because of profit motives? I have no idea what the impact of this selection will be… there are so many wide open questions.” 

Sobien emphasized that the agency’s function is to protect the public.

“The main function of the National Weather Service mission is to save lives, and I’m really really worried that they will come in there and start messing around with things that have taken years to develop and gel — and it will cost people’s lives,” Sobien said. 

The union’s letter gives other examples of Myers’ conflicts of interest, including the fact AccuWeather has a joint venture with the China Meteorological Administration. As the letter puts it, “He is literally in business with the Chinese government.” 

“To put an attorney in there that might have a conflict of interest business-wise, just seems like an odd choice,” Sobien said. “[We] don’t know what he knows about salmon or grouper… or even tsunamis, which is something NOAA does,” Sobien added. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists noted that another executive was nominated for a key role at NOAA earlier this summer. Dr. Neil Jacobs is the chief atmospheric scientist for Panasonic Weather Solutions that “sells their data and model outputs to NOAA as input to weather forecasts,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy, wrote in a blog post. “[Jacobs] has advocated for a greater role for the private sector much as Mr. Myers has,” the former NOAA scientist wrote.

“It is easy to see how private weather companies like AccuWeather or Panasonic could directly benefit from decisions made by Myers and Jacobs,” Rosenberg wrote.

It’s not clear why Myers’ nomination was announced this week. He has been the leading candidate for the position since January, when he was brought in for meetings with members of Congress. His is reportedly the latest-ever nominee for NOAA administrator and comes more than a month after the first of three devastating hurricanes hit the United States.

Earlier this summer, Accuweather made headlines for sending location data from users of its app to third parties in order monetize that data through targeted ads. The company was sending the data even if users had turned off location sharing, a security researcher found.

“I hope he gets asked about that at his confirmation hearing,” the union’s lawyer, Hirn, told ThinkProgress.

But it’s not just Myers’ penchant for privatization or his lack of scientific background that has been stirring opposition. Sobien said that ocean groups and emergency management organizations have been joining the union in its opposition to Myers’ nomination. NOAA plays a critical role in both ocean management and emergency response.

“His background makes him ill-suited for a job that is so fundamental to coastal communities, the ocean economy, and all Americans,” Michael Conathan, director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of CAP.)

NOAA will already be facing an uphill battle to maintain — much less develop — its capabilities. Its coastal management grants program, which gives coastal states money to protect resources and develop protections, is cut by 50 percent under the House appropriations bill, according to Ocean Conservancy. Climate research is cut by nearly a fifth. Ocean research is cut by 12 percent, and several other programs will receive a trimmed budget. The Office of  Oceanic and Atmospheric Research budget is cut by more than a quarter.

NOAA scientists have performed some of the key studies that inform our understanding of climate change. Myers would be joining a team — including Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt — that has repeatedly rejected the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are causing potentially catastrophic climate change.

Myers has gone on the record saying that scientists should not get “involved” in the so-called climate debate. In 2014, during an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Myers responded to the question, “What kind of role do you think AccuWeather should play in the climate debate?” by saying, “We have said to our scientists, if you have special skills in climate, if you want to voice your professional opinion, our platforms are open to you. We do not want people getting involved in the political aspect of this debate because I don’t think any of [them] are qualified to do that.”

In the published article, Myers did not elaborate on what he meant by the “political aspect” of climate change. A section on AccuWeather’s website acknowledges the science of climate change and the implications for human life and property. One article — from 2011 — even explains how scientists know climate change is caused by human activity.

Myers is likely to be asked about his familiarity with climate science during his confirmation hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.

Sen. Thune’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday morning. This post has been updated to reflect comments from Sen. Nelson.