Budget talk could lead to accusations over climate emails

By Emily Yehle | 03/14/2016 07:11 AM EDT

The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will come face to face this week with Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who has waged a monthslong effort to force the agency to hand over scientists’ emails.

NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan will testify about her agency’s fiscal 2017 budget request in front of the Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Environment. Smith, who heads the full committee, will attend and will likely mention "NOAA climate oversight," according to the panel.

Smith, a climate change doubter, began pressuring NOAA last year to hand over internal emails discussing a study that disputed the global warming "pause." The agency refused to hand over scientists’ emails but did provide the panel with emails from other employees that referred to the study (E&E Daily, Dec. 17, 2015).


In a letter last month, Smith accused the agency of possibly withholding some emails because it asked employees to search their own emails. He asked for NOAA to submit all emails from employees within certain offices that included various keywords, including "climate" or "change."

"The search terms selected by NOAA officials appear to be unnecessarily narrow and the Committee fears that they may not accurately capture the breadth and scope of documents responsive to the Committee’s subpoena," Smith wrote in the letter. "Moreover, the speed with which NOAA has conducted these searches and produced documents creates the perception that the Agency is deliberately attempting to impede and hinder the Committee’s oversight."

Wednesday’s hearing, however, is billed as an overview of NOAA’s budget proposal. According to NOAA, Sullivan’s testimony will detail how the budget supports four priorities: building resilient communities and businesses; investing in observational infrastructure; evolving the National Weather Service; and increasing organizational excellence.

For fiscal 2017, NOAA is asking for $5.8 billion, a modest increase of 1.3 percent. Among other things, the agency wants more focus on coastal resilience, ocean acidification research and water forecasting.

In a budget briefing with the public last week, Assistant Administrator Eileen Sobeck — who heads NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service — emphasized that the "wet" side of NOAA has enjoyed a steady budget increase in recent years.

Among the most noteworthy requests from NMFS is an increase of almost $13.5 million for Section 7 consultations under the Endangered Species Act. Such consultations ensure that a federal project or action does not jeopardize endangered species.

The agency is behind on reviewing permits for everything from dredging to construction, with a backlog that is now nearly 1,100 consultations, Sobeck said. That’s largely due to a drastic increase in the number of requested consultations, she said, with no matching increase in staff.

"At the moment, our endangered species consultations are often the choke point for economic and other activities that are desperately needed in all parts of the country," she said, later adding: "We simply need increased resources to do our job right."

Schedule: The hearing is Wednesday, March 16, at 2 p.m. in 2318 Rayburn.

Witness: NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan.