The Energy 202: National Weather Service makes dozens of hires as new hurricane season begins

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THE LIGHTBULB

Note to readers: Paulina Firozi, who helps produce The Energy 202 every day, wrote today's Lightbulb. Follow her here and email her here.

The National Weather Service is staffing up following the most destructive and busiest hurricane season recorded in 2017, making dozens of new hires as government scientists predict a “near-normal” new season.

The Weather Service has since October hired 71 people in meteorological positions and will finalize about 30 to 40 additional hires in the next month. For the first time in several years, the agency’s hiring has outpaced the rate of people retiring from or leaving it. A net gain of seven people now work for the agency, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We feel pretty positive this is going to continue and going to accelerate,” said Mary Erickson, the Weather Service’s deputy director.

If so, the new hires couldn't come at a better time for the Weather Service, which is charged with forecasting hurricanes, thunderstorms and other major weather events. The service was criticized by lawmakers and members of its union for hundreds of unfilled vacancies, mostly in meteorological positions, that endured throughout last year's deadly storm season — including Hurricanes Maria, Harvey and Irma.

NOAA predicts this hurricane season will be closer to “normal,” or slightly above normal compared with last year, with 10 to 16 named storms, five to nine hurricanes and one to four major hurricanes. That’s compared with 17 named storms and 10 hurricanes last year. Colorado State University updated its seasonal hurricane forecast last week, dropping the number of expected storms to 14 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes. Brian McNoldy wrote in The Post last week that “this forecast is very close to what we consider an average season.”

“Finally,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told The Energy 202 in a statement about the Weather Service's new hires. “And it could not have happened at a better time now that hurricane season is upon us. I’ve been pushing for years to get the staffing backlog addressed.”

Not everyone is so sanguine.

“That fact that they’re hiring 100 new meteorological interns is a drop in the ocean in terms of where they need to be,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment, citing the hundreds of remaining vacancies.

“That’s problematic, that’s troublesome, especially for meteorologists who work in local stations and who are in the front lines in communities,” he added. “The fact that climate events led to $306 billion in damage last year alone has been an alarm for us. As our climate continues to change and extreme weather continues to worsen, it’s even more important and relevant that we do this.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said in a statement to The Energy 202 he trusted the agency and NOAA to use its funding where needed.

“Congress has recently approved an additional $100 million in the hurricane supplemental to increase forecasting skills, observations, and weather research, which will be very important to the National Weather Service during hurricane season,” he said. “I have faith that NOAA will use these resources to better protect lives and property.”

Last September, the Weather Service said it had 286 vacancies for which there was funding, an unfilled vacancy trend that started in 2010 and stabilized in 2016 (and was exacerbated by the temporary hiring freeze of federal works implemented by President Trump). It has since adjusted some hiring procedures, including a move toward grouping vacancy announcements to allow a larger number of vacancies to be filled at once, rather than one by one.

“We’ve been trying to improve our hiring progress for a few years now, and we’ve been trying a couple of different approaches,” Erickson said. “We’re seeing now that those improvements are starting to take root, and we’re seeing the fruits of that work.”

Most of the recent hires have been for entry-level positions called meteorological interns. The interns work in local forecast offices to make weather observations, monitor systems for signals of severe weather and formulate forecasts based on the data, Erickson said.

Dan Sobien, the president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, the union representing meteorologists and other employees at the agency, said he’s encouraged by the progress.

He said the Weather Service has “made an honest effort to fill a whole bunch of positions.”

“We’re still way behind what we need,” he said. “But we’ve managed to stop the bleeding. Now we just have to figure out what caused the bleeding.”

That represents a change in tune for the union, which less than a year ago said the staffing shortages had spread employees so thin that the agency was “for the first time in its history teetering on the brink of failure.”

Even with the latest batch of hires, the Weather Service has 370 total vacancies for which it can hire. Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the higher number of vacancies since last year is in part because of additional funding from Congress. Under the fiscal 2018 appropriations bill, the Weather Service received a more than 3 percent boost, which amounted to more than $1 billion.

Erickson said the agency works to “maximize appropriations from a hiring perspective.”

“If lawmakers appropriate larger amounts of resources, we’re going to apply those resources to meet that mission,” she said. “Our country is sensitive to a number of weather vulnerabilities, as we’ve seen in the last hurricane season, so we want to make sure we’ve got all the tools in place to carry out that mission.”

Smith also noted NOAA still lacks a permanent leader. “What would be even better is if the Senate Democrats would allow the confirmation of Barry Myers as NOAA administrator,” he said. “The agency needs a strong leader like Mr. Myers who has a tremendous amount of forecasting experience leading one of the largest private sector weather companies, AccuWeather.”

Myers, the chief executive of AccuWeather, was nominated by Trump to fill the role on Oct. 16, but alleged conflicts of interest and a lack of a formal science background have stalled his confirmation process, The Post’s Jason Samenow has reported. It’s the longest NOAA has gone without a permanent leader.

Erickson said the agency has, however, named a head of the National Hurricane Center. Kenneth Graham was selected to lead the center in March. “We feel very prepared for the upcoming hurricane season,” Erickson said, noting other positions at the Hurricane Center have also been filled.

“We’ve been working on training with them on messaging of hurricane threats, and we’ve been working on storm surge tools and training our forecast staff as they come on board. It’s a rigorous set of training so they can be ready to go as soon as they are working operationally.”

And Erickson said the new hires can immediately contribute to the round-the-clock work happening at the forecast offices, such as getting out social media messages about weather events.

POWER PLAYS

— A Cold War strategy to keep coal and nuclear plants hot: Trump ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to halt the shuttering of struggling coal and nuclear power plant by wielding Cold War-era emergency powers. The Post’s Steven Mufson reports there "have been meetings this week at the Cabinet deputies’ level and at the National Security Council." A 41-page draft memorandum posted online by Bloomberg News and Utility Dive would favor certain power plants in the name of national security — including those are owned by some of the president’s political allies in the coal business, like Murray Energy chief executive Robert Murray. 

The plan is a bit like saving "a failing grocery store in your neighborhood" by "mandating that everyone do enough of their shopping there to keep the place from shutting down," The Post’s Philip Bump explains. In short, the plan would mandate that electricity distributors buy enough power from certain facilities to ensure they stayed open. The rationale is that such plants produce power reliably and are critical in the age of cyberattacks. 

A coalition of oil, gas, solar, wind and energy efficiency trade groups disagree. The unlikely bedfellows denounced the move as “unprecedented and misguided" and as "an exercise in crony capitalism" in a joint set of statements released on Friday. 

— Pruitt watch: There’s a long list of stories about Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt and his ethics troubles:

  • Three Senate Democrats are calling on the EPA’s internal watchdog to investigate whether Pruitt received an improper gift from a top aide, Millan Hupp, who made the housing search for him last year, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. In a letter, Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.), Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), cite new emails showing that the aide corresponded with the real estate agent during office hours from her government email address.
     
  • Pruitt spent $1,560 on a dozen customized silver fountain pens with the seal of the EPA and the administrator’s leader from a luxury jewelry store in Washington. The agency also paid $1,670 for other items from the store, including personalized journals.
     
  • The lobbyist whose wife rented a Capitol Hill condo for $50 per night to Pruitt contacted the agency on behalf of a number of clients, including Coca-Cola, the Financial Oversight and Management Control Board of Puerto Rico and Smithfield Foods, according to disclosure forms filed by his former firm. In contrast, the lobbyist, J. Steven Hart, who announced his retirement in April as chairman of Williams & Jensen, repeatedly told The Post and other media that he did not lobby the agency in 2017 or 2018.
     
  • Last December, Pruitt attended one of the biggest games of the University of Kentucky basketball season, and sat in tickets reserved for season-ticket holders who had donated at least $1 million to the school. “But there was more to the game last December than a superfan experience for Mr. Pruitt and his son, who joined him,” the New York Times reports. “They sat in seats belonging to Joseph W. Craft III, a billionaire coal executive who has engaged in an aggressive campaign to reverse the Obama administration’s environmental crackdown on the coal industry. Mr. Craft and his wife donated more than $2 million to support President Trump’s candidacy and inauguration.”
     
  • Richard Smotkin, a lobbyist who was involved in organizing Pruitt’s trip to Morocco last year, also tried to organize a trip to Qatar in the fall, The Hill reports. Internal agency emails show Smotkin told Hupp in a July 2017 email that Pruitt would receive an invite from the Qatar Government to attend a conference, but the trip never happened.
     
  • The agency looked into spending $10,000 on a charter plane flight for Pruitt to see a mine during a scheduled trip to Australia. Hupp coordinate the plan with top lobbyist for Peabody Energy to take Pruitt to an underground mine, The Hill also reports. The trip to Australia was ultimately canceled.

— Perry’s premium travel: Energy Secretary Rick Perry took a dozen premium-class flights during his first seven months in the administration, ABC News reports, spending more on air travel than what he argued were related to security concerns. “The Energy Department records tracking premium travel for the 2017 fiscal year show that coach fares were available for the 12 flights disclosed but that the department approved the premium or first-class fares, adding approximately $51,000 to the cost, as compared to the listed coach prices,” per the report. “Perry's first or business class flights were all listed as part of official agency business and cost the agency at least $63,560.”

— Rollback of auto mileage standards gets rolling: Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent the Office of Management and Budget a proposal late last week for overhauled fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. The Post’s Steven Mufson reports the OMB is expected to publish the proposal by the end of the month, which will start a 60-day public comment period.

— One year later: A year ago Friday, Trump announced the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement. But what has changed in a year? “Trump’s move felt dramatic at the time and was hugely controversial,” The Post’s Chris Mooney writes. “A year later, though — and despite his administration efforts to roll back environmental protections — there has been little change in the metric that matters most: the nation’s overall greenhouse gas emissions trajectory…It’s just one indicator of just how complex it is to assess the effect of Trump’s Paris move."

Underscoring that ambiguity, the United States is still technically in the Paris agreement since the nation cannot do so until 2020. One year ago, Trump merely announced he intended to withdraw from the accord.

— Former industry lawyer to lead Superfund task force: The lawyer who has been tasked with leading the task force overseeing Superfund cleanups was recently a lawyer for a leading chemical and plastics manufacturer “with a troubled legacy of creating some of those toxic sites,” the Associated Press reports. “Before beginning work in February as deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, Cook served more than 20 years as in-house corporate counsel for LyondellBasell Industries — one of the world’s largest plastics, chemicals and refining companies,” per the report. “EPA records show that LyondellBasell and its subsidiaries are listed as being potentially responsible for at least three dozen Superfund polluted sites.”

— Corn wars: The Trump administration is set to announce changes to the nation’s biofuel policy, Bloomberg News reports, including a push to lower costs for oil refiners while broadening the market for ethanol. “The White House-brokered compromise aimed to offer something to every major stakeholder in the contentious debate over the U.S. biofuel mandate, including refiners forced to use corn-based ethanol and farm-state lawmakers who want to guarantee demand for the product,” per the report. The announcement is planned for Monday.

— Top Yellowstone official retires after 43 years: Daniel Wenk, a highly respected National Park Service executive announced on Friday he would retire as Interior Department officials consider a proposal to reassign him. Wenk, the Yellowstone superintendent, submitted a request to retire on March 30, The Post’s Darryl Fears reports, which will allow him to stay in his post for much longer than he would have if he were reassigned. “He asked to delay his departure for several reasons, including sealing agreements with the state of Montana and a Native American tribe to move bison from Yellowstone to Fort Peck, 400 miles away,” Fears writes. “Wenk would not comment on why Interior identified him for a transfer. But people close to him called it a ‘punitive’ and ‘political’ move by an administration that demands loyalty over issues of deep concern to Wenk, such as wilderness preservation and conservation.”

— “I promise to do better:” P. Daniel Smith, the head of the National Park Service, apologized to employees in an email to staff on Friday for behaving “in an inappropriate manner," according to an email obtained by The Post, after allegedly making a gesture involving his genitalia in the hallways of the department’s headquarters this year. “As a leader, I must hold myself to the highest standard of behavior in the workplace,” Smith wrote. “I take my responsibility to create and maintain a respectful, collegial work environment very seriously. Moving forward, I promise to do better.” The email follows a report from The Post in March that the Interior Department’s internal watchdog was investigating the incident. Smith said in his email that the department's inspector general has completed its report, which the inspector general's office said will be released at the end of June. 

THERMOMETER

— Hurricane Maria in context: There is currently disagreement on the number of deaths attributable to the storm, with a new New England Journal of Medicine study pegging the figure at 4,645 while the government of Puerto Rico itself puts the toll at at least 1,400 between the storm’s landfall on Sept. 20, 2017 and the end of the year.

Either way, Maria was one of the deadliest natural disasters to ever strike the United States, The Post’s Christopher Ingraham reports, once either figure is compared to historic data kept by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Ingraham notes there are different ways to define “disaster,” which could include disease outbreaks, or man-made catastrophes such as terrorist attacks. But for the purposes of the chart above, he “excluded both diseases and human-caused events to focus on what are typically considered ‘natural’ disasters."

— Meanwhile, the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics is suing Puerto Rico’s health department and demographic registry to obtain information on the number of deaths. The institute's director, Mario Marazzi-Santiago, told the AP that he was pleased with the released information but that the lawsuit will continue as officials haven’t released information about individual deaths. The lawsuit followed after Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said there would be “hell to pay” if Puerto Rico officials were withholding data about the death toll.

— Scant media mentions of the storm study: Despite the eye-popping new death toll for the storm, Maria's aftermath could not rise above the deluge of coverage on cable and broadcast news of Roseanne Barr after the actress made a racist remark on Twitter, The Post’s Philip Bump found.

— “Uber for disasters:” A North Carolina businessman has built a smartphone app, Harmany, that will connect people who evacuate and need shelter during disaster events like hurricanes, wildfires, and airport closures with those who can provide shelter. “We believe that crisis can bring out the best in people,” businessman Adam Huminsky told The Post’s Samantha Durbin. “When the floodwaters are rising, no one stands on shore and asks the overwhelmed whom they voted for. They pull the person to safety.”

— Feeding sea turtles rather than kill them: A brewery in Florida has developed a biodegradable six-pack ring that will be edible for wildlife. The rings are made of wheat and barley and are now available in some south Florida stores, The Times-Picayune reports.

OIL CHECK

— Before you plan your next vacation: American Airlines is warning passengers that higher oil prices could mean increased airfares. “Oil prices have risen around 50 percent compared to the levels seen last year and that is putting pressure on airline profits,” Reuters reports.

Still, crude oil futures eased on Monday, Reuters reports, “with prices coming under pressure from record U.S. output and expectations of higher OPEC supplies.”

DAYBOOK

Coming Up

  • The Senate Energy an Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the 2018 wildland fire management and programs at the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service on Tuesday.
  • The House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security holds a hearing on the Iran nuclear agreement on Wednesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a legislative hearing on Onshore Energy Development Bills on Wednesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on several bills on Wednesday.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy will hold a hearing on hydropower licensing process on Thursday.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the “Electric Grid of the Future” on Thursday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands holds an oversight hearing on “Wildfire Risk, Forest Health, and Associated Management Priorities of the U.S. Forest Service” on Thursday.

EXTRA MILEAGE

— Lava threat continues: Volcanic activity from the Kilauea Volcano has entered a fourth week: