OCEANS:

House aides mull plans to overhaul, codify NOAA

Aides from the two House committees with jurisdiction over the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working together to draft legislation to overhaul and authorize the agency for the first time, according to House Science Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.).

Gordon wants to advance a NOAA organic act this year. The bill would give a congressional directive to the science and oceans agency, which has gone without any authorizing bill for 40 years.

Republican and Democratic aides from the Science and Natural Resources committees plan to meet this afternoon as part of a "good faith" effort to advance a bill, Gordon said yesterday.

"We hope to move forward with the first authorization in almost 40 years," Gordon said in an interview yesterday. "In essence it would be a joint bill ... we would each do our own, and then we would merge those together."

Oceans advocates in Congress and the environmental community have long pushed for legislation to codify NOAA, which still operates under an executive order issued in 1970 by President Nixon.

The issue has been a priority for the Science Committee for years, and the panel previously advanced a narrow NOAA bill through the House that never made it into law. But efforts to bring the Natural Resources panel on board this year could expand the scope of the act. The Science panel has jurisdiction over NOAA's research in areas such as climate, ocean acidification and weather. But fisheries issues fall under the purview of the Natural Resources panel.

The Science Committee's 2006 effort to advance a NOAA act was met with approval in the House only after Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) pared down his original proposal substantially to make sure it did not butt into the jurisdiction of the Transportation or Resources committees. That meant stripping the bill of all directives for NOAA's oversight of fisheries, coastal zone management, ocean mapping and charting, and other issues under the jurisdiction of the Resources panel.

Ehlers, who is planning to retire at the end of this year, asked NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco yesterday to try to use her influence to persuade all the various committees to work on a NOAA bill. He suggested bringing in President Obama and the White House Office of Management and Budget to encourage cooperation on a bill.

"It seems to me absurd that we have an agency that was created by executive order almost 40 years ago. It just doesn't make sense," Ehlers said at a hearing with Lubchenco yesterday.

The 17-year veteran of the House added: "If the fish people don't like our organic act, that's fine. There is always something fishy somewhere. I hope you can do what you can to persuade anyone, we are not invading on their jurisdiction and not trying to change their activities."

Aides for the Natural Resources Committee said yesterday that Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) is looking forward to working with the Science Committee on the act but did not comment further.

Efforts are also brewing in the Senate. Lubchenco said she has received a letter from the Senate Commerce Committee -- the main oversight committee for NOAA in the upper chamber -- expressing "a keen interest" in seeing a NOAA authorization bill move forward.

"NOAA would welcome an organic act, it's appropriate," Lubchenco told the House panel yesterday.

An organic act would put the force of law behind NOAA -- which currently functions under the executive order and dozens of smaller-scale statutes that set up authority over specific issues, like the weather service, fisheries, sanctuaries or coastal zone management.

Work on the act could also give lawmakers an opportunity to set priorities for the agency and potentially give it new or expanded authorities. For example, an organic act has the potential to direct NOAA to take action on climate change, implement recommendations from the new presidential oceans task force or set up a new system for ocean zoning.

Major reports from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission five years ago recommended codifying NOAA, saying it would be an essential first step to empowering the agency to carry out reforms needed to ensure healthy oceans.

Since 1971, lawmakers have introduced more than 20 measures to establish the agency in law. The most recent effort was in 2006, when the House approved the Science Committee's narrow bill. But that legislation -- passed late in the congressional year -- never passed in the Senate.

If Congress advances legislation this year, it may be up to three retiring lawmakers to push it forward. Gordon also plans to retire at the end of this term, as does the chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.). Baird has said movement on a NOAA organic act would be "one of the earliest actions" this year for his panel.

Those lawmakers' short future in Congress could prove to be incentive to speed up work on the bill. Gordon yesterday said that he would like to see the bill completed this year as a way to "pay tribute" to Ehlers and his work on the issue.