- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Talk about a perfect storm.

Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, introduced legislation last month that would restrict the kind of information that the National Weather Service (NWS) disseminates.

The senator has said he is concerned that the Silver Spring agency threatens private forecasting services, including an employer in his home state. His bill would allow the NWS to issue storm warnings, but it would not be permitted to give out data for free if a private company provides the same kind of information.

The legislation is dividing big media.

AccuWeather Inc. is one of the bill’s biggest proponents. The State College, Pa., company essentially takes National Weather Service data, adds analysis and other “value-added” services and then sells the material to companies, TV stations and newspapers, including The Washington Times.

In the other corner is the Weather Channel, the Atlanta cable-TV giant.

Mr. Santorum, the Senate’s third-ranking Republican, wasn’t available for comment.

In a column posted on his Web site, he hinted that his bill is a kind of pre-emptive strike. In December, the NWS’s parent agency repealed a policy that prevents it from offering services similar to those available from private companies.

“The NWS can best serve the American taxpayers by focusing on its core responsibilities … rather than using its limited public resources to aggressively compete with existing private sector forecasting services,” the senator wrote.

An NWS spokesman said he was not permitted to comment on pending legislation.

Barry Myers, an AccuWeather executive, said the NWS has tailored free forecasts for energy traders, government contractors and sports teams — the kind of service his company specializes in.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for that,” Mr. Myers said.

AccuWeather has contributed $13,750 to Mr. Santorum and the Republican Party in the past three elections, according to a nonpartisan watchdog group.

If people are able to get a forecast only from providers that rely on private vendors such as AccuWeather, it could muddy the integrity of the information, said Dan Sobien, vice president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, which represents about 37,000 government meteorologists, researchers and other workers.

“A private vendor can change the information. Nobody will know for sure if it is the official forecast,” he said.

Equally problematic: The bill could prevent NWS officials from speaking to reporters, he said.

The Weather Channel relies on the NWS and other services for its forecasts. The TV network doesn’t necessarily dispute the “spirit” of the bill, but it is concerned about rigidly defining the NWS’ role, said Raymond Ban, an executive vice president.

None of Mr. Santorum’s colleagues have co-sponsored the bill, suggesting that its chances are slim.

The bill has been the subject of scathing newspaper editorials.

The Times-Picayune in New Orleans called it “unfair,” adding that it “makes as much sense as forbidding the U.S. Census Bureau to provide data to the public so that private demographic firms can sell the information.”

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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