President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the nation’s oceans and atmosphere agency is already facing political headwinds.
While environmental groups and some senators have expressed skepticism about the nomination of Barry Lee Myers, the CEO of AccuWeather, to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the criticism to date has focused on possible conflicts of interest that could arise from the fact that he has spent much of his career leading a private sector weather forecasting company.
However, potentially more problematic is Myers’ role in securing a 2015 deal with the Chinese government that set up a 20-year joint venture to disseminate weather data in China.
The deal may spur national security concerns, at least one the surface, considering that China is a potential adversary of the U.S. Shortly before AccuWeather announced its expansion into China, Chinese hackers were implicated in a 2014 hacking incident that knocked out NOAA’s satellite data dissemination. In other words, the nominee to lead NOAA is doing business with the country suspected of hacking the agency.
Satellite view of Hurricane Maria.
AccuWeather, based in State College, Pennsylvania, entered into the 20-year agreement with the Huafeng Media Group, a commercial weather media company wholly owned by the China Meteorological Administration, a government entity.
Through this partnership, AccuWeather and Huafeng set up the Huafeng-AccuWeather (Beijing) Co., Ltd., whose mission is to “advance, enhance, share, and distribute weather forecasts” from AccuWeather for locations across China.
According to a 2015 press release announcing the partnership, the joint venture would include other arrangements to distribute weather information through other Chinese companies. It described the deal in hyperbolic terms, saying it’s a game-changer in the weather industry.
“This is may be [sic] the largest and most dramatic single event to occur in the provision of weather information on a country and global scale in the history of the weather industry,” the release stated.
The full scope of the deal between AccuWeather and the Chinese government is unknown, but does involve AccuWeather hiring personnel in China. A company spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the joint venture in China.
Hurricane Irma (L) and Hurricane Jose (R) in the Atlantic Ocean on September 7, 2017.
AccuWeather is not the only U.S.-based weather company with a presence in China. IBM, for example, which owns The Weather Company, including the popular website weather.com, also conducts activities in China, but does not have nearly as extensive a meteorology operation in the country as AccuWeather does, according to a spokesperson for The Weather Company.
When it was announced, AccuWeather claimed that the joint venture makes it, “the only company sanctioned under the new Meteorological Law of China to distribute a full and detailed set of official weather information and forecasts of the China Meteorological Administration and the unique forecasting techniques and Chinese patents of AccuWeather.”
Myers is quoted in the release as saying:
AccuWeather is pleased to introduce a groundbreaking endeavor with China to serve the China market.
AccuWeather’s technical and meteorological innovations, including our unique forecasting products and longer-range forecasts, will provide new value to the people of China. We are committed to providing forecasts with Superior Accuracy that offer the most innovative weather information available, helping people in all parts of the world to make informed decisions, protect their property and business interest and protect the lives of citizens.
The Chinese market is massive, and the growing population and increasing popularity of mobile devices there offer tantalizing prospects for weather information providers such as AccuWeather.
But there is one big problem in having a NOAA nominee who was the CEO of a company that struck such a deal: The China Meteorological Agency (CMA) is a government entity, just as the National Weather Service (NWS) is in the U.S.
Not only that, but the Chinese government has also been implicated in cyberattacks on U.S. critical infrastructure, including NOAA’s own systems in 2014, the year before AccuWeather inked its deal.
According to the Washington Post, hackers based in China breached federal weather systems pertaining to satellites and other critical infrastructure. The attack on web servers led to a satellite data outage, affecting millions of U.S. users of weather information and partners abroad. While Chinese officials denied any involvement in the incident, then-Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia told the Post that the attack was of Chinese origin. (Wolf was a key player in cybersecurity and NOAA oversight at the time.)
China continues to be a major cybersecurity concern of the U.S. government, perhaps second only to Russia.
According to Antonio Busalacchi, the president of the University Corporation of Atmospheric Research (UCAR), it’s up to the U.S. government to determine if American weather companies’ work with China poses any national security risks.
“In terms of the media outreach and other aspects, China’s working with a range of companies,” Busalacchi said in an interview.
Busalacchi said it’s possible that the AccuWeather deal, as well as other private company operations in China, will raise national security concerns on Capitol Hill and within the Pentagon, given the U.S. treatment of China as a potential adversary.
“Is something like AccuWeather or Yahoo Weather or The Weather Channel having activities in these countries, is that giving those countries or parts of the world an undue edge versus our military? I can’t answer that question,” Busalacchi said.
“If the answer is ‘yes’ then we have a national security issue. That’s a fair question to be asked. That transcends just AccuWeather,” he said.
“The government has to be very careful if it’s going to step in and try to stifle this sort of innovation of the private sector.”
Ralph O. Stoffler, the director of weather and the deputy chief of staff for operations at the Air Force, said he does not think AccuWeather’s activities in China, or those of other private U.S. weather firms, raise red flags on national security, at least not for the Air Force.
“Recognize the fact that, first, the weather information that these private companies are most likely selling in China is information over China, and the rest of the information to a great extent is already available in the public domain,” Stoffler said in an interview.
What would be far more concerning to Defense officials like Stoffler is if China were to seek weather information on strategically sensitive U.S. locations, he said.
Stoffler said he does not think AccuWeather’s Chinese venture should be much of a focus of senate hearings for Myers’ nomination.
“U.S. weather companies operate all over the globe, China is a big market, and I don’t see why that would be an issue in the senatorial discussions at all from my perspective,” he said.
Forecasters at the National Weather Service monitor Hurricane Irma, at the hurricane center in Miami on Sept. 9, 2017.
AccuWeather’s Chinese operation has not yet been a focus of attention for critics of Myers’ nomination, since most opposition from environmental groups and senators has focused on conflict of interest issues and AccuWeather’s past activities lobbying for a bill that would have narrowed the role of NOAA’s National Weather Service. For example, when contacted for comment about AccuWeather’s China operation, a spokesperson for a senator said he was unaware the deal existed.
Myers is the first head of a private weather company ever to be nominated for this position, and his lack of a formal science background and any experience with oceans issues has been a main focus of criticism. The Chinese deal, when combined with the hacking incident, may add to some lawmakers’ skepticism toward his nomination.
AccuWeather helped push a 2005 bill that would have severely curtailed the ability of the National Weather Service (a NOAA agency) to unveil new products and services to distribute its forecasts and weather warnings. Such a bill was widely interpreted as being a boon for AccuWeather and other private weather companies, at the expense of taxpayers who pay for NOAA to gather weather data that is distributed for free.
The bill would have set up a system in which NOAA would still gather weather data, but private sector companies like AccuWeather would then deliver it to consumers in the form of forecasts, potentially charging for such services. The bill never came up for a vote on the senate floor.
However, opponents of the bill haven’t forgotten it. Florida Senator Bill Nelson, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, released a statement on the Myers nomination that implicitly referenced it.
“We’ve had ten hurricanes in ten weeks, I want to make absolutely sure any NOAA administrator will put the public first in delivering freely available weather forecasts,” Nelson said. “We can’t afford to have someone in this position that might be tempted to feather their own nest by privatizing the National Weather Service.”