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Murkowski Op-Ed: NOAA: A fish out of water in US Commerce Department (Move to Interior)

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By Senator Lisa Murkowski

There are many issues on which I disagree with President Obama. When someone is right on something, however, it is important to give credit where it’s due. Earlier this year, the president asked Congress to grant him authority to reorganize federal agencies. He said his first move would be to consolidate federal agencies that focus on economic development and move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from the Department of Commerce to the Department of the Interior.

As a state with tremendous ocean resources, conversations about the future of NOAA demand our full attention, and caution is warranted to ensure the best interests of Alaskans are protected. But after reviewing the president’s plan for NOAA over the past few months, I’ve concluded it makes sense on a number of levels.

From a basic structural perspective, NOAA is increasingly out of place at Commerce -- like a fish out of water. Its stated mission is to provide the scientific data necessary to protect lives and property, as well as to conserve and help manage our nation’s fisheries, oceans and coastlines. Now consider the two departments it could be located in. Commerce is primarily focused on the promotion of economic growth and international trade, dealing with patents and other commercial issues. Interior, meanwhile, manages natural resources, public lands, and fish and wildlife. Based on that alone, it’s easy to see why Interior is a more natural fit.

NOAA’s work is actually far more critical to Interior agencies than any at Commerce, and its research and monitoring efforts could be greatly improved by reducing the organizational and bureaucratic barriers that currently undercut cooperation with Interior.  At the end of the day, the question to ask is not whether these agencies should remain separate, but instead, why they were separated in the first place.  According to many, NOAA is currently located at Commerce simply because President Nixon was upset with one of Alaska’s great statesmen, Wally Hickel, who was serving as Interior Secretary at the time.

The fact is, NOAA and Interior have a lot in common. Both focus on offshore mapping and charting. Both manage marine mammals, fish stocks, and habitats under many of the same environmental statutes. Both monitor climate issues affecting conservation and direct adaption efforts. Both coordinate and advance foundational science. NOAA’s marine sanctuary, estuary research reserve system, and marine protected area programs parallel programs at Interior.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testified that he sees “synergies” resulting from NOAA’s move to his department. Secretary of Commerce John Bryson agrees. He recently said that it makes sense from a business efficiency perspective and “could enhance productivity.” If we do this right, moving NOAA to Interior could also save taxpayer dollars and streamline some of the notoriously slow-moving bureaucracy Alaskans face. A merger would allow our atmospheric, terrestrial and marine scientists in both agencies to fulfill their responsibilities in a more productive manner.

Right now, we know improvements can be made. For example, NOAA and Interior regularly conduct separate environmental reviews of the same projects, adding time to the approval process and crossing purposes. Case in point is NOAA’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Arctic oil and gas development, which contemplates a needlessly restrictive and unrealistic program and is at odds with Interior’s own assessment. Instead of coordination, the current arrangement routinely leads to conflict and confusion -- and an uncertain path forward for those who wish to invest in our state.

It’s critical that we reduce spending and streamline the federal government, but equally important is making sure that moving NOAA to Interior would not adversely affect NOAA’s valuable work. Any transition must be carried out carefully, with great attention to detail, and with even greater care to preserve the working relationships that Alaskans have forged with their federal regulators. A move to Interior should be a merger of equals, not an absorption of NOAA’s programs by existing Interior agencies.

In my mind, it’s possible to make sure that’s the case -- just as it’s possible to make both NOAA and Interior work better for Alaska. And it is indisputable that those who depend on ocean resources -- whether through fishing, energy, subsistence whaling or weather monitoring -- will be better served by one unified authority rather than two in conflict.

The conversation is only beginning. The president asked Congress to provide him with authority to reorganize the federal landscape. Whether Congress agrees to do so or retains that power for itself, at least one part of this plan -- moving NOAA into the Department of the Interior -- appears to have real merit. It’s time to start making it happen.

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