As a top executive at AccuWeather, Barry Myers has pushed for limits on the kinds of products that the National Weather Service offers to the public, saying they offered unfair competition to his industry.
Now, President Donald Trump’s nomination of Myers to lead the weather service’s parent agency could allow him to make those kinds of restrictions mandatory — to the benefit of his family-run forecasting company.
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The AccuWeather CEO’s nomination to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is stirring criticism from people who worry he would hobble the weather service, which provoked an industry backlash more than a decade ago by making hour-by-hour forecasts, cellphone alerts and other consumer-friendly data widely available online. A bill that Myers supported 12 years ago, sponsored by then-Sen. Rick Santorum, would have prohibited the agency from competing with private providers in most circumstances.
Myers, who has served as a NOAA adviser, has more recently spoken of cooperation with the agency, including industry’s advocacy for Congress to fund its budget. But his critics expressed misgivings nonetheless.
“I fear that he’ll do irreparable harm to an agency whose primary mission is to save lives,” said Daniel Sobien, the president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, which strongly opposes Myers’ nomination. “There seems to be a huge conflict of interest considering his business background and belief system.”
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) agreed, calling Myers a “questionable” choice.
“As the CEO of AccuWeather, Barry Myers views NOAA as a direct competitor that provides high-quality forecasts for free,” Schatz said in a statement Thursday. He added that “Mr. Myers will have to work very hard to persuade me that he will run NOAA for the public good.”
Myers’ defenders say they hope he’ll use his long experience running a major weather enterprise to modernize NOAA, which also oversees fisheries, marine sanctuaries, endangered species, climate research, satellite data and its own uniformed officer corps.
“In past decade, AccuWeather has embraced ‘Big Data’ and become an advertising & digital innovation behemoth under Myers’ leadership,” wrote Ryan Maue, the chief operations officer at the website Weather.us, in a post on Twitter. Maue separately told POLITICO: “I expect Myers to bring that same vision to NOAA and enhance collaboration with the private sector especially in the role of space-based remote sensing and satellites.”
Myers did not return a call to his office Thursday, and a lobbyist who works with AccuWeather did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Myers, whose brother Joel founded AccuWeather in 1962, would join a roster of other business leaders whom Trump has installed atop his agencies — many of them bringing considerable potential conflicts of interest to the job. He has degrees in law and business, not the science and math degrees that Bush’s and President Barack Obama’s NOAA chiefs had.
Richard Painter, who served as the top ethics official for President George W. Bush, said Myers can probably meet the legal requirements to separate himself from his business. But, he added: “The appearances are awful. He should recuse from any matter that could have a financial impact on the company. And he should sell the stock.”
Myers indeed “will be liquidating all of his private sector holdings,” said a spokesman for NOAA’s parent agency, the Commerce Department, adding that he’ll “be subject to the same ethics and recusal requirements as any federal official.”
The spokesman also rejected suggestions that Myers would clamp down on the weather service’s public offerings. He said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who chose Myers for the job, “sees the provision of timely, accurate data to the public as one of the Department’s core missions. This includes weather data provided by the NWS, so there is no risk that Myers will restrict NWS provision of data to the public.”
“Myers has also been a strong proponent of free and open weather data to the public,” the spokesman added.
But in 2005, Myers supported Santorum’s widely panned bill, which would have prohibited the weather service from offering a product or service “that is or could be provided by the private sector” — a provision that would have benefited companies like AccuWeather.
The bill made some exceptions, including information needed to protect life and property, but weather entrepreneurs, hobbyists, airline pilots and open-government advocates said it would have choked off a wealth of data that the National Weather Service had begun making widely available. The legislation would have countered a 2004 policy change by the Bush administration that had eased restrictions on the weather service’s ability to offer new products and services.
“It is not an easy prospect for a business to attract advertisers, subscribers, or investors when the government is providing similar products and services for free,” Santorum said when introducing his bill. Critics, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), noted that taxpayers had already paid for the weather service’s data.
Myers told The Palm Beach Post at the time that he wanted the weather service to return to its “core mission … which is protecting other people’s lives and property,” rather than spending “hundreds of millions of dollars a year, every day, producing forecasts of ‘warm and sunny.'”
“We work hard every day competing with other companies and we also have to compete with the government,” he told ABC News a month later.
Myers had donated $1,000 to Santorum’s Senate campaign in 2004 and 2005, though the executive also has a track record of donating to both Democratic and Republican politicians, including Trump, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney. Santorum and Myers are both prominent alumni of Penn State University, and AccuWeather is based near the school’s main campus in State College, Pa.
Santorum’s bill went nowhere, however — an outcome that Maue said turned out to be “the best thing that could have happened for Accuweather as they were on the ground floor of the digital/smart phone App revolution for weather apps.”
More recently, Myers testified to the House Science Committee last year about the need for “embracing free and open data in all situations,” while maintaining that “the best public facing forecasts and information comes from the weather industry.” Still, he said government, industry and academia each bring their own strengths to the relationship, adding that “NWS need not do everything to keep Americans safe. Others can share the load.”
Myers estimated that cooperation among the federal government, the private weather industry and academic researchers had saved 1 million to 2 million lives since the late 1950s.
But Sobien, the union chief, expressed skepticism about the kind of partnership Myers envisions.
“In the past, he has supported proposals that essentially made it so the National Weather Service’s only function was to provide data to companies like AccuWeather who would then repackage that data and sell them,” Sobien said.
AccuWeather, which says its forecasts appear on more than 200 major television stations, 900 radio stations and 180,000 websites, has also been aggressive over the years in criticizing the weather service for what it sees as its shortcomings. Among other incidents, the company complained that the weather service had underestimated the strength of Hurricane Claudette before it hit Texas in 2003, and it said the federal agency was late to issue warnings about a 2015 tornado in Oklahoma.
As recently as February, AccuWeather’s website highlighted an incident in which some of NOAA’s weather data suffered a “significant outage,” while noting that “AccuWeather-produced services remained available and reliable.”
AccuWeather’s sharp-elbowed approach also extends to competition with its rival The Weather Channel, which it replaced two years ago on Verizon’s FiOS television lineup. AccuWeather’s website has also inspired eye-rolling among some in the weather community by offering 90-day forecasts, which one meteorologist blogging for the American Geophysical Union dismissed as “scientifically indefensible” and “even worse than the Farmer’s Almanac.”
Members of the small community of weather watchers, who never forgot AccuWeather’s support for Santorum’s bill, contend it will be nearly impossible for Myers to fully eliminate his conflicts of interest.
Myers’ brother Joel still serves as the company’s president and chairman of the board. Their brother Evan is the chief operating officer.
“His family owns the business and he knows the decisions he makes are going to affect the business for years and potentially decades to come,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy. He added, “My biggest concern is not that somebody has a business background, but do they genuinely recognize that a job in government is a fundamentally different one from managing and running a private business for profit.”
Others are reserving judgment.
David Titley, a former NOAA official during the Obama administration, said he prefers not to comment on personnel decisions. “We will all have to wait & see in what direction Barry wants to take NOAA,” he said in an email.