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House Science Committee Democrats Call For NOAA Leadership's Removal

Press Release From: Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Democratic Caucus
Posted: Monday, May 15, 2006

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Cite Gross Mismanagement and Billions of Wasted Taxpayer Dollars

(Washington, DC)  House Science Committee Ranking Member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) and ETS Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. David Wu (D-OR) are calling for the removal of NOAA Administrator Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr. (Ret.) and General John J. Kelly Jr., Deputy Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere.

"If this isn't 'the fleecing of America,' I don't know what is," stated Rep. Gordon.  "If we're to have any hope of stopping this train wreck, NOAA must have new leadership - the sooner, the better."

A tri-agency program (NOAA-DOD-NASA) initiated in 1994 to save taxpayer dollars, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System or NPOESS, is the next generation of civilian/military weather forecasting satellites and it is in a financial abyss.  The fledgling National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) satellite program is tasked with short and long term weather forecasting. 

In March of 2005, the baseline budget for NPOESS was $6.8 billion.  Today, costs to complete the program have risen to an estimated $13.8 billion.  NOAA's entire annual budget is just $4 billion dollars, yet this program is at a 100% or $7 billion cost overrun.  The project is also at least three years behind its projected use date of 2009. 

"The consequences of NOAA's failed leadership will affect every sector of our nation's economy and the daily lives of all Americans. This is not the way we spend tax-payer dollars, nor how we achieve our goals," said Rep. Wu.

Why should America's care what happens to NPOESS?  NPOESS is meant to provide accurate three-seven day weather forecasts; the forecasts Americans have come to rely on in making decisions involving public safety, commerce and everyday planning capacities.  Without its completion, there will likely be a gap in accurate U.S. weather forecasting. 

"This program may sound arcane and technical, but it isn't just about the inconvenience of getting a little wet because you didn't take your raincoat," added Rep. Gordon.  "This satellite will improve hurricane prediction; help farmers better gauge planting/harvesting schedules; aide energy companies in accurately estimating consumer's rates and much more."

Problems with the NPOESS program have been mounting for years, yet NOAA refused to acknowledge their severity or act expeditiously to address them.  The Department of Commerce Inspector General's report - issued late last week - documents these failures of management by leadership at NOAA. 

The cost overruns and schedule delays are one consequence of that failing.  Another result is that the program is now subject to a Nunn-McCurdy review at the Department of Defense (DOD).  Because this is a joint program with costs split equally between NOAA and DOD, NPOESS has been entangled in a mandatory review for any DOD program whose cost growth exceeds 25% of the original baseline estimate.  One possibility of this Nunn-McCurdy review is that DOD would choose to cancel their participation in the program, leaving NOAA to solely bear the costs of going forward.  A decision is due June 6, 2006.

"Who is accountable for the billions of dollars cost due to gross mismanagement of this essential program?  The buck stops at the feet of the Admiral and his deputy, the General," added Rep. Gordon. "If the President fails to take action to refresh NOAA leadership and salvage this program, then the blame should rightly shift from the agency to the Oval Office." 

In a letter to the President urging the Administration to replace NOAA leadership's, Rep. Gordon and Rep. Wu stated, "We passionately believe that public service should require competence and personal accountability.   At NOAA, the evidence is in that a monumental failure of leadership and management has occurred.  We urge you to immediately intervene and replace Admiral Lautenbacher and General Kelly, holding them accountable for the dismal failure at NOAA."

The text of the letter to the President follows:

May 12, 2006
The Honorable George W. Bush
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC  20502

Dear Mr. President,

We write today to ask that you act expeditiously to put a new management team in place at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The largest acquisition in the history of that agency is for the National Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).  As recently as March of 2005, managers at NOAA were reassuring our staff that the project was under control in terms of cost and schedule.  At that time, the baseline budget for the program was $6.8 billion.  Today, the program is estimated to cost $13.8 billion to complete.  With NOAA having an entire annual budget of just $4 billion dollars, this 100% cost overrun of $7 billion is simply unacceptable. 

Vice Admiral Lautenbacher is currently serving as the Administrator for NOAA.  At no time in the last two years has the Administrator ever been candid with these Members or the Committee on Science regarding the true problems with this project.  We were never sure whether he was purposely obfuscating or was legitimately ignorant of the problems.  The release of a recent Inspector General's report suggests that he and other top managers at NOAA simply did not pay attention to information pulsing through the NPOESS system that the cost and schedule were perilously at risk.  Curiously, the Admiral both claims to want to embrace the findings and recommendations of the IG report and yet repudiates their premise.  He claims that, contrary to the IG's findings, he was intimately involved in the management of this program.  This leaves us with the difficult situation of trying to determine if he was negligent, as the IG suggests, or incompetent.  Either would be sufficient reason to ask for his removal.

In addition to the Vice Admiral, we ask that you replace the Deputy Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere General Kelly.  General Kelly is the appointee most directly charged with the day to day tending of the NPOESS management.  He has been as forthcoming with the Congress and our Committee as has been his boss; in other words, we can never get a straight answer out of him either.  When the IG wanted to interview the manager involved in decision-making on NPOESS, it was General Kelly who answered the call rather than the Admiral.  In fact, the Admiral would not even meet with the Inspector General

This program is essential to the economic life of our nation.  NPOESS is necessary to give us the data the National Weather Service needs to provide accurate forecasts of weather conditions.  The economic consequences and perhaps even the public health consequences of failure to fix the NPOESS situation are too dire for us to fail.  However, we are convinced that this program will not succeed with the current leadership in place at NOAA.  I urge you to hold these two presidential appointees accountable for managing a $6.8 billion program into a $7 billion cost overrun, with years of schedule delay. The very survival of NPOESS is at risk due to an imminent Nunn-McCurdy review at the Department of Defense.

We passionately believe that public service should require competence and personal accountability.   At NOAA, the evidence is in that a monumental failure of leadership and management has occurred.  We urge you to immediately intervene and replace Admiral Lautenbacher and General Kelly, holding them accountable for the dismal failure at NOAA.

Sincerely,         

s/BART GORDON
Ranking Member

s/DAVID WU
Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards

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