There is no mistaking the new administration’s intent of reducing appropriations to environmental related endeavors for Fiscal Year (FY) 2018. Although there is disagreement on what should and should not be prioritized in next year’s budget, there are a host of reasons why decreasing funding for environmental-related programs is anything but a pro-business initiative. While potential impacts of the proposed changes detailed in the President’s FY 2018 Budget range in magnitude and location, some will be localized to Western North Carolina.

The source of these potential localized impacts for WNC and, specifically, Asheville, can be derived from the U.S. Department of Commerce FY 2018 NOAA Budget Summary. NOAA’s FY 2018 budget includes a $986,996,000 reduction from the FY 2017 Annualized Continuing Resolution level. The summary outlines proposed changes to appropriations for each of NOAA’s general provisions, which include the National Weather Service, the National Ocean Service, and several other programs. One of NOAA’s general provisions, the National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service (NESDIS), is of particular value to Asheville and WNC as a whole, because this provision includes the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) sub-program.

With its headquarters located in downtown Asheville, NCEI provides a variety of services to Asheville, the region, and the nation. What makes NCEI so important to the public? Not only does NCEI host and provide public access to the most significant archive for environmental data on Earth, but the majority of users of NCEI’s services are general business, media, and public. With more than 1 billion users each year, NCEI’s general user profile is composed of:

  • 70% general business, media, public
  • 15% researchers, business consultants
  • 15% value-added providers

Decreases in Budget

The proposed FY 2018 Budget requests a decrease of $6,284,000 for a total of $56,519,000 in the NCEI sub-program. These changes include:

  • A decrease of $1,686,000 to terminate the Big Earth Data Initiative (BEDI) program
  • A decrease of $3,000,000 to the Regional Climate Centers (RCC) program
  • Undescribed additional decrease of $1.598M and 9 full-time employees (FTE)

The implications of these decreases should concern general businesses, media, and the public.

The Big Earth Data Initiative

The Big Earth Data Initiative has been in development since 2014 and was established to maximize public access to NOAA NCEI’s environmental observations, in concert with those of other Federal Agencies. Working with NASA and other agencies, NOAA NCEI has already established the necessary protocols and software systems and has also identified early opportunities to enhance access to several high-priority environmental data sets. One wonders why this exciting endeavor should be stopped now? By discontinuing BEDI in NOAA, the Federal Government and the public would essentially lose the prior investment and miss a valuable opportunity. Not only is the termination of BEDI counterproductive, but it inconveniences the general user of NCEI’s valuable information.

Regional Climate Centers

For over three decades, NOAA’s climate data and services programs have been conducted in partnership with university-based Regional Climate Centers (RCCs) around the country. As described in the FY 2018 Budget, the RCCs contribute to the production and delivery of climate data and information for decision makers and other users at the local, state, regional, and national levels. A decrease in funding of $3M for the Regional Climate Centers would leave them with an inadequate sum of $650,000 to continue operations. With this reduced level of funding, the RCCs will not be able to respond to customer phone requests, collect current weather and climate information, and provide an active website that includes value-added climate information and products. Unless contract funding is restored by Congressional action, the RCCs will be forced to close all service operations on March 6, 2018.

Funding Reduction

The other concern, of course, is the undescribed reduction in funding for NCEI programs. The budget proposal notes that program reductions of less than 5% of total funding are not described in detail. Impacts of this reduction depend on whether the undescribed program change reduction of $1.598M and 9 FTE will be spread across several programs, or concentrated within a single program. Making a reduction of this magnitude without understanding its specific impacts is reckless and potentially dangerous.

Motivation to maintain the services provided by BEDI and the RCCs is largely economic in nature. A recent study prepared by Acclimatise, an international climate information business with a presence at The Collider, located in Asheville, identified that NCEI data has a multi-billion dollar impact to the energy sector alone, by aiding in the production of electric load forecasts and other services. Construction and commercial transportation companies rely on NCEI data for planning and safety purposes. Other major users of NCEI services include the insurance industry, financial institutions, and the Department of Defense.

Potential local economic impacts

With these details aside, the primary concern of the citizens of WNC, regarding the proposed funding decreases to NCEI, should be focused on the potential local economic impacts. NCEI directly stimulates economic activity in the Asheville area by supporting 237 federal employees, contractors, and associates, for a total of $31M. These salaries translate into broader economic impacts.

Additionally, NCEI provides services for and collaborates with several other environmental and non-environmental related businesses and organizations located in the Asheville area. If the proposed FY 2018 budget decreases affect NCEI’s ability to maintain its current level of accessibility and service, then the businesses and organizations who rely on NCEI will observe reductions in their abilities to provide services to their own clients. The big question to ask is what the total economic impact would be after all the effects of these budget decreases ripple throughout Asheville, WNC, and the country, and if it is worth saving $6,284,000 at the federal level. It could be that the termination of BEDI and the near termination of the RCCs would not only directly threaten the accessibility of environmental information to the public, but it would cost the public more than it saves our government.

Local efforts, based on pro-business initiatives, to understand the economic impacts of reduced support for NOAA NCEI are underway. The Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Coalition of Asheville-Buncombe are working on translating the FY 2018 budget proposal into broader economic impacts for the Asheville area. The Regional Climate Centers have mounted an educational effort since March aimed so that funding may be restored, but even if efforts are successful Congress might identify cuts elsewhere to cover that funding.

In addition to CASE Consultants International, several other entities highlight the importance of NCEI and the need to maintain the level of funding so important to our area. Some of these entities include the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites, the 14th Weather Squadron, The Collider, Citizens Climate Lobby, and residents of the Asheville area.

We are currently in FY 2017 (October 1, 2016 thru September 30, 2017). With recent history in mind, Agencies may continue to be funded through Continuing Resolutions, week by week, and presently through September 30 with the most recent CR. However, looking longer term, a sustained support for NOAA NCEI is part and parcel of our longer-term vision.

Whether you are a citizen of WNC or a local business owner, we encourage you to join us in efforts towards sustained support and funding for NCEI. We welcome you to our presentations and talks that explain the budgeting process and provide a factual understanding of the significant contribution NOAA makes to the Asheville, Western North Carolina, and the Nation.

Eileen Shea,   CASE Consultants International and  Eric Wright Climate Change and Society Master’s Program NCSU