WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's administration is seeking to slash one of the government's premier climate science agencies by 17 percent, delivering steep cuts to research funding and satellite programs, according to a four-page budget memo obtained by The Washington Post.
The proposed cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would also eliminate funding for a variety of smaller programs including external research, coastal management, estuary reserves and "coastal resilience," which seeks to bolster the ability of coastal areas to withstand major storms and rising seas.
NOAA is part of the Commerce Department budget, which would be hit by an overall 18 percent reduction from its current funding level.
OMB also asked the Commerce Department to provide information about how much it would cost to lay off employees, while saying those employees who do remain with the department should get a 1.9 percent pay increase in January 2018. It requested for estimates for terminating leases and "property disposal."
The Office of Management and Budget outline for Commerce for fiscal year 2018 proposed sharp reductions in specific areas within NOAA, such as spending on education, grants, and research. NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research would lose $126 million, or 26 percent, of the funds it has under the current budget. Its satellite data division would lose $513 million, or 22 percent, of its current funding under the proposal.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and National Weather Service would be fortunate by comparison, suffering only 5 percent cuts.
The figures are part of OMB's "passback" document, a key part of the annual budget process in which the White House instructs agencies to draw up detailed budgets for submission to Congress. The numbers often change during the course of negotiations both between the agency and the White House as well as lawmakers and the administration later on. The 2018 fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
A spokesperson for Commerce declined to comment. A White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the process was "evolving" and cautioned against specific numbers. The official would not respond to questions about the four-page passback document.
The biggest single cut comes from NOAA's satellite division, known as the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, which includes a key repository of climate and environmental information, the National Centers for Environmental Information. Researchers there were behind a recent study suggesting that there has been no recent slowdown in the rate of climate change — research that drew the ire of Republicans in Congress.
Another proposed cut would eliminate a $73 million program called Sea Grant, which supports coastal research conducted through 33 university programs across the country. That includes institutions in many swing states that went for President Trump, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, the University of Florida, and North Carolina State University.
On March 1 after his confirmation, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that drawing up a budget would be a top priority. "One of the first steps," he said "will be securing adequate appropriations from the Congress. In a period of budgetary constraint, that will be a major challenge."
The OMB passback document said that Commerce, like other agencies, should "buy and manage like a business." It urged the department to explore greater use of privately owned commercial satellites and commercial cloud services while submitting to OMB a plan to retire or replace "at least one high priority legacy IT system" beginning in 2018.
Many scientists warned that the deep cuts at NOAA could hurt safety as well as academic programs.
Conrad Lautenbacher, a retired vice admiral who was the NOAA administrator under President George W. Bush, said "I think the cuts are ill-timed given the needs of society, economy and the military." He added, "It will be very hard for NOAA to manage and maintain the kind of services the country requires" with the proposed cuts.
Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator under President Barack Obama, said that 90 percent of the information for weather forecasts comes from satellites. "Cutting NOAA's satellite budget will compromise NOAA's mission of keeping Americans safe from extreme weather and providing forecasts that allow businesses and citizens to make smart plans."
"NOAA's research and operations, including satellite data management, support critical safety needs. A reduced investment now would virtually guarantee jeopardizing the safety of the American public," said Rick Spinrad, a former chief scientist for NOAA.
He said weather warnings for tornadoes and hurricanes could be compromised. Navigational capacity used to help guide commercial ships and other mariners would suffer, leaving them without the "improved forecasts they need to safely maneuver coastal waters." It could become harder to warn of tsunamis and forecast weather that will cause power outages.
The OMB passback said that the administration wanted to "prioritize rebuilding the military" and would seek "savings and efficiencies to keep the Nation on a responsible fiscal path." It said that its proposed funding cut for the Commerce Department "highlights the tradeoffs and choices inherent in pursuing these goals."
OMB also said that the White House would come up with ideas to modernize "outdated infrastructure," but it said that agencies should not expect increases in their fiscal year 2018 discretionary spending "toplines" as a result.
David Titley, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University who served as NOAA's chief operating officer in the Obama administration, said that "oddly" the White House budget office, despite the president's commitment to building infrastructure, would cut NOAA's budget for ships and satellites. "These cuts will impact good private-sector jobs in the U.S.," Titley said. " The loss of capability will make America weaker both in space and on the sea — a strange place to be for an administration that campaigned to 'make American great again.' "
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The Washington Post's Chris Mooney and Abby Phillip contributed to this repor