What does the Department of Commerce, most often regarded for its responsibility in creating conditions for economic growth and opportunity, have to do with the ocean? Within the department lies the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), placed there by an irate President Richard Nixon to keep it out of the control of the Secretary of the Interior (with whom he was feuding). The result is a commerce department with a wide-ranging spectrum of duties that include monitoring weather, enforcing international trade agreements, and regulating exports. On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a confirmation hearing for Wilbur Ross, President Donald Trump’s Department of Commerce secretary nominee. Mr. Ross is a billionaire investor and a political newcomer with a long history in the steel, textile, automotive, and coal industries.
Though the hearing mainly focused on Mr. Ross’s stance on major trade agreements and jobs, NOAA, fisheries, and sea level rise were all discussed. In his opening statement, Mr. Ross acknowledged the importance of the agency. In addition to using NOAA-produced data and owning a shipping company, his personal waterside property has made him “well aware of the importance of timely warning of impending hurricanes.” Ranking Member Bill Nelson (FL) pressed Mr. Ross regarding his support of NOAA’s scientific integrity policy (a commitment to protect scientific findings from being suppressed, distorted, or altered and to encourage transparency). Mr. Ross sidestepped answering directly, instead expressing “great respect for the scientific quality of NOAA.” Senator Brian Schatz (HI) asked about NOAA’s “stagnating” funding for coastal and ocean programs and the aging Pacific buoys and ships, in contrast to satellite spending. Mr. Ross responded that although the current planned expenditures are for several more satellites, the next biggest expenses will be for updating vessels.
Several senators questioned Mr. Ross regarding the fisheries and shipping industries and their economic and job impact. Mr. Ross admitted he had only learned in recent weeks the fishing industry’s importance and intricacies and stated that he would like to increase net export. When asked by Senator Edward Markey (MA) what he would do to ensure seafood is caught legally and sustainably, Mr. Ross suggested a multi-faceted approach, including using the maximum sustainable yield as a starting principle to ensure sustainability and having improved vessel inspections at ports to ensue legality, as the overwhelming majority of shipments go uninspected.
On the subject of the validity of sea level rise data, Mr. Ross evaded a definitive answer and said that it would be “interesting” to see the new NOAA 2016 State of the Climate report (which was coincidentally released during the hearing). With close personal ties to the president and his heavy involvement in designing the new administration’s trade agendas, Mr. Ross, if confirmed, is expected to continue having an expanded role in trade policy and negotiations. Senators on both sides of the aisle welcomed this, and it is anticipated that he will be easily confirmed.