Obama's Call to Move NOAA Could Undermine Ocean Scientists' Independence

President Obama has announced a plan to move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration out of the Commerce Department and into the Department of the Interior. While streamlining government to better serve the American people is a worthy undertaking, this decision could significantly undermine efforts to safeguard our oceans and marine life.

NOAA is the most important voice America has on the state of our oceans. It is also one of our best resources for understanding the changing atmosphere and the increase in severe storm events. Its scientific expertise and data-driven decisions are world renowned.

More than ever before, our oceans need thoughtful, science-based management. Depleted fisheries, growing acidification of ocean waters from carbon pollution, and expanded drilling in ever-more extreme environments are just some of the issues nation has to tackle. Now is the time for our oceans experts to apply their skills, not lose their independence.

Housing NOAA within a department whose focus on the oceans is almost entirely extractive (permitting offshore oil drilling and exploration, for example) could erode the capability and mute the voices of the government’s chief oceans experts.

I served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, and one year ago we delivered our findings about what caused the deadly spill and how America could avoid another oil disaster.

In our report, we underscored the critical importance of having strong and independent scientific and environmental input into offshore drilling decisions and, to that end, recommended a strengthened role for NOAA in the decision-making process.

Moving NOAA into the Department of the Interior is not a recipe for strengthening NOAA or ensuring its independence.

The way the Interior Department has been dealing with oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean is a case in point. Our commission concluded that the government cannot make thoughtful decisions about the future of drilling in the Arctic Ocean until we close two critical gaps: the gap in our scientific understanding of the Arctic ecosystem and the gap in our ability to respond to spills in that forbidding landscape.

NOAA has expressed concerns about Arctic drilling in the past, it should be helping to fill the research gap. But what will its role be if it gets folded into a department that didn’t place value on conducting that scientific review before it allowed drilling?

We understand the president’s interest in creating a more nimble, coherent entity for economic policy; but that can be done without sacrificing the scientific and environmental strengths of NOAA, and the independent perspectives it brings to America’s ocean riches.